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A memento, an emblem, a reminder

An object is not always an object. Sometimes it can be a symbol or a reminder of lessons learned, sometimes it is a testament to recovery.

Newport News Daily News, 7 May 1944. The Mariners’ Museum.

Some years ago, The Mariners’ Museum had the worst kind of archivist, lifting items from the collection and selling them on E-bay. To this day, no one is entirely certain what was lost. Records from before his tenure here were often incomplete and idiosyncratic, a fact he used and exploited to his advantage. The mess he left behind, both metaphorically and physically, is something we still deal with. No one is sure how he worked, or why some of these items were chosen and then left cluttering up his office. Were they things he had meant to sell and hadn’t yet gotten to, or was the massive pile of disorganized items meant to disguise the quantity that had gone missing?

Sometimes, sorting through that mess reveals treasures, squirreled away. Yesterday, it was a set of postcards. We had borrowed the same set from another museum for a recent exhibit, and now we find we had them all along. Today, it is a newspaper celebrating VE day. The paper is not, in an of itself, particularly valuable. Newspapers are not particularly prized for a number of reasons, including space (think of the cubic footage that would be required to hold even a single year of a daily paper, then multiply that by decades or more) and the cheap paper’s high acid content that degrades the paper and everything it touches. It is considered, in most cases, more efficient to keep microfiche or digital copies.

The issue that was found folded up in an acid-stained folder this morning was an extra from the Daily News, printed on 7 May 1945. The paper, creased and heavily stained, is surprisingly thick in comparison to modern newsprint, or even vintage pulp novels. The headline, dwarfing everything on the page, is NAZIS GIVE UP. Inside is a timeline of the war, a biography of Hitler, and stories about the major American generals. The inner pages are illustrated. No artist is listed, but it looks similar to the works of Allan Jones, Jr., a local artist who illustrated a book on the history of Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation and painted murals of local Naval shipbuilding. There is an article about the HRPE, detailing how the local installation handled the news of European victory — “The best way of celebrating is to stay on your jobs”, lest they jeopardize the war effort in the Pacific. On-duty personnel remained at their stations, off-duty personnel were restricted to their barracks. There was, however, a parade and an Enlisted Men’s dance at the HRPE gym. This is particularly relevant to two of my colleagues and me, as we are cataloging a collection of more than 15,000 photographs and their negatives negatives that document life and work at HRPE.

The content and its associated sentimental value make it possible that this item was taken to be sold, though it is doubtful it would have sold for much. Other VE Day papers seem to go for between $25 and $100.

The newspaper has its own intrinsic value, but given its more recent history, it is also an emblem, and an example, of the things we haven’t lost. It, and its companion items, are the reasons we implemented new security protocols, so thefts like this will never happen again. These items, still being explored and rediscovered, are things that could have disappeared, nameless and unknown. Instead, they are here with us, safe and protected. As they should be.

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