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Correspondence in time of war: Smithsonian’s ‘Mail Call,’ to appear at Valley Heritage Museum

From the American Revolution to present day, mail has formed a link between members of the military and their loved ones. Beginning May 9, the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum will host a traveling Smithsonian exhibit highlighting that connection.

“Mail Call” explores the history of the military mail system and tells personal stories of service and family attachment through documents, photos, audio recordings and handwritten letters.

Spokane Valley Heritage Museum Director Jayne Singleton said “Mail Call” is a perfect exhibit for Spokane Valley because of the region’s military history.

“This is a window into the personal experiences of military members and what it means to be in the military,” she said. “It’s about how important letters were and how communication was accomplished. Letters are gold to soldiers. My brother was stationed in Iraq and getting letters just made his day.”

The Smithsonian opened “Mail Call” in 2011 as a permanent exhibit at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Two years of work went into historical research and refining concepts for the gallery, Andrew Holik, spokesman for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, said.

The National Postal Museum and SITES launched a traveling version of the exhibit in 2012.

“We were excited at the ability to work with our colleagues at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum and saw great enthusiasm around the important story of the value of maintaining connection between troops and their loved ones, and the important and often overlooked process that makes it possible,” Holik said.

“Mail Call” draws a majority of its postal artifacts and letters from the National Postal Museum’s collection – including an artifact reproduction of a coconut mailed as a love letter during World War II.

Some materials were donated by individuals or transferred from the U.S. Postal Service years before the exhibition, while others – such as an audio letter recorded by a soldier in the Vietnam War – were specifically sought out for the collection, Holik said.

Holik said the Smithsonian wants to ensure its traveling exhibitions reach several regions in the U.S. Because SITES received an outpouring of interest from museums throughout the country who weren’t able to book the tour, it was extended it to a small number of venues.

The Spokane Valley Heritage Museum is one of 21 U.S. museums selected by SITES to host “Mail Call.”

“Having seen the work done by the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum, we know they are a wonderful, professional museum in a fantastic venue that has held many enriching history exhibitions and we are excited to see them host ‘Mail Call,’ ” Holik said.

Singleton is planning an exhibit, “Veterans’ History Project,” which includes letters from local soldiers, to accompany “Mail Call.” .

Jeff Danner, a Navy veteran who served two tours during the Vietnam War, said receiving mail was “huge” for soldiers, especially when there wasn’t email.

“When mail was to arrive, it was the high point of our day,” said Danner, a Spokane Valley Heritage Museum board member.

Since opening in 2005, the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum has hosted two Smithsonian exhibits in addition to “Mail Call” as well as several military exhibits.

“(The military exhibits) are always well-attended by young and old alike,” Singleton said. “People want to understand and respect those that have either served or given the ultimate sacrifice.”

Singleton said she hopes the exhibit helps attendees gain an understanding of soldiers’ experiences serving on the front lines and insight into their day-to-day routines.

“By being able to read personal stories and histories, this exhibit brings you closer to what they go through when they are far from home, what loved ones go through and how very important it is to write your letters to relatives who may be deployed,” she said.

Singleton said the exhibit – which runs through July 15 – already has generated interest from people and tour groups.

“I think it’s an incredible opportunity to experience a Smithsonian exhibit right here at home, without having to travel to Washington D.C.,” she said. “Especially one that is so connected to our own history here.”

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