MY LAI EXHIBIT REPORT
TOM STURTEVANT CHAPTER OF VETERANS FOR PEACE
First off, I want to thank the many chapter members and their friends who stepped forward to help set up the exhibit, to help host it, to provide material for it, and to take it down. Not to mention to make Mac MacDevitt, the exhibit creator and director, feel at home while he was in Portland. Members and friends that I can think of helping include:
We put on three events to complement the exhibit itself: a Friday night poetry reading, a Saturday afternoon film showing, and a Saturday evening reading from LETTERS TO THE WALL. There was also an "official" opening and closing of the exhibit led by Mac MacDevitt Friday evening and Sunday afternoon respectively. In all honesty, the Friday evening and Saturday evening events did not bring in the visitors I hoped it would. They were both lightly attended. I want to thank Peggy, John, and Eric for joining me in reading from veterans' poetry and Richard for reading Michael Uhl's letter Saturday evening. Although we did not reach as many people as we hoped to, I was very pleased with the heart, soul, and mind invested in the readings.
The Saturday afternoon film session, on the other hand, packed the room (I'd say there were twenty people present). Eric started out with a comprehensive explanation of his film trailer that introduced viewers to his recent time in Viet Nam. Eric wanted to capture the words of those who fought for the National Liberation Front. He also wanted to show how horrific the toll of war can be. His trailer lived up to its prior billing. Dud then stepped in with equal grace, intelligence, and relevance to show the "premiere" of his thirty minute film that conveys the emotion and struggle of Vietnamese and American veterans, many of them wounded in the war, who bicycled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Thanks to Brian Leonard for his dedicated expertise in making these films possible (Brian even stuck around to help us set up a video showing of the films throughout the rest of the exhibit in the hall way leading to the exhibit).
Throughout the entire exhibit, thanks to the generosity of Rob Shetterly and Dud's assistance, we were able to display four portraits of men whose lives were integral to understanding the American War in Viet Nam — Ron Kovic (author of BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY); Hugh Thompson (the helicopter pilot who set his chopper down between the Vietnamese villagers of My Lai and the rampaging American troops); Muhammed Ali (the world's greatest boxer who gave up a good chunk of his career to protest against the war); and Howard Zinn (the VFP member, WWII veteran, historian and dedicated peace activist whose writings about war always speak the truth). We provided statements about each portrait to explain their relevance to the exhibit.
Thanks to Peggy Akers's efforts we were able to secure the Portland Media Center on Congress Street for the exhibit at no cost to the chapter. Mac had indicated that he needed 1400 square feet for the exhibit; we had 1480 square feet so he could set up his entire exhibit. Upon entering the Media Center, there is a room to the immediate left that we used for the readings and film showings (20 chairs comfortably fit into the room). The visitor then walked down a long hallway with Rob Shetterly's four portraits set up on easels to the right. After Saturday afternoon, there was a TV screen set up in the middle of the portraits to show Dud's and Eric's films. The exhibit space was well-lit, spacious enough for twenty or so people to wander through the panels at one time, and air-conditioned. There were rest rooms. Space was also available (including a couch) for people to reflect on their experiences. The Media Center's location on Congress Street and its accessibility leant itself to folks like Peter, Dud, Bill, and John standing out front and encouraging passers-by to step in. That, and a large poster board and an events sandwich board, really contributed to the numbers of folks attending the exhibit. For logistics purposes, having a rear entrance and adequate parking contributed greatly to loading up and taking down the exhibit with some degree of expediency (probably took three hours to do each).
The Portland Press Herald really helped to get the word out about the exhibit. An excellent article describing the exhibit appeared in the Saturday paper and then Bill Nemitz's in the Sunday paper really got people in the door on Sunday. Nemitz spent a lot of time at the exhibit and then sent a photographer around to capture its essence. His sympathetic, straight forward writing is much appreciated. I called him the "Bob Woodward" of Maine (he corrected me saying that Carl Bernstein was a better writer), and he lived up to the billing. We also contacted the university library system, USM's senior college programs, Pax Christi, PeaceWorks, and numerous personal email lists and websites. Thanks to all who sent out personal invitations.
Mac set up some forty panels that proved to be riveting (see Bob Lezer's excellent photo series on the panels shared via our Maine VFP list serve). Viewers were able to wander through the display at their own pace. Images and brief factual panels were woven together to engross even the most skeptical visitor. Mac also provided two collage sections where a person could sit and take apart war photos and essays and re-configure them to fit their take on the massacre. Really a brilliant concept. Then Mac put up a video board of collages past and present that could be viewed to see how others tackled the collage experience. In addition, Mac provided a moving, powerful video account of Dennis Stout's time spent in Tiger Force in Viet Nam. Devastating. Finally, viewers could read and then sign the open letter to the people of Viet Nam expressing our remorse over what was done in their village fifty years ago. If a viewer wanted to write a letter to The Wall, or read previous letters, a space was provided for that purpose as she or he exited the exhibit space. We estimate that about 200 people attended the exhibit (40 or so on Friday evening; another 60 or so on Saturday, and then a surprising 100 or so on Sunday [we opened early and had to shoo people away as we tore down the exhibit]).
Mac reported that he received over $400 in donations (a dollar here, a five there, etc). Then a woman approached him, very moved by the exhibit, and wrote him out a check for $800.00 (there is a story behind that amount). Mac was very pleased. Our expenses were pretty much limited to the $480 we forked out to print 40 copies of books (LETTERS TO THE WALL) that never arrived (I got them on Monday because our publisher is located in North Carolina and had to shut down due to the hurricane). We hope to sell some of them at the Common Ground Fair. We also contributed $180 to the USM Student Veterans group who came over on Sunday to visit the exhibit and help take it down. Mac told me that he did not need any more money from us. When all is said and done, I think it was a good investment — we might have picked up a few new members; we certainly got some positive press coverage; and almost every visitor to the site thanked us for our contribution to their understanding of the war.
Thanks again to all who contributed. If I forgot to mention you, please let me know, and Iâ€™ll correct the record. VFP stood tall this past weekend. Now to the fair!!
A selection of photos from the My Lai Memorial Exhibit
Veterans For Peace
Tom Sturtevant Chapter
Brunswick, ME 04011