Publication Date

October 22, 2018

Perspectives Section




The morning after the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, Pam Schwartz sat on her couch trying to make sense of what had happened, and what she could be doing for her community. “I knew police were investigating, doctors were saving lives, medical examiners were identifying victims,” she says. But what could she be doing as a historian and as the chief curator at the Orange County Regional History Center (OCRHC)?

Orange County Regional History Center staff load up a large banner, bearing the name of survivor Neema Bahrami, from the Pulse nightclub site for permanent preservation.

Orange County Regional History Center staff load up a large banner, bearing the name of survivor Neema Bahrami, from the Pulse nightclub site for permanent preservation. Image courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center

It quickly dawned on her that the shooting, the deadliest in the United States at the time, was going to be “one of the most significant events of the century for our community.” “Memorials are going to start to spring up; there are thousands of stories to be told,” she says she realized. Drawing on her professional expertise, she soon drew up a five-page plan to aid in the collecting of objects that would help tell those stories. She didn’t want them all to be swept away.

Over the next few days, Schwartz and her colleagues recruited volunteers, sought permission to start collecting from the memorials that had popped up at multiple sites across the city, and put up signs, in English and in Spanish, at the sites, alerting the community about OCRHC’s plans. Eleven days after the shooting, they showed up at the memorial sites with boxes and started collecting objects for preservation.

Mass shootings seem to occur regularly in the United States. Just in the past few years, places like Santa Fe, Texas; Parkland, Florida; Sutherland Springs, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; San Bernardino, California; Charleston, South Carolina; Sandy Hook, Connecticut; and Aurora, Colorado, have been rocked by these tragedies. Reeling in the wake of the violence, communities become sites of grief, with shrines and public memorials popping up spontaneously. Flowers, candles, teddy bears, artwork, letters, and other mementos accumulate at shrines to memorialize the victims. For most communities, the tragedies are singular events in their history. And to ensure that they’re never forgotten, library, archive, and museum professionals, in a practice that has come to be known as condolence collection, sift through these items and preserve them for future generations.

While the practice of creating temporary memorials is “ancient,” says Ashley Maynor, digital scholarship librarian at New York University, purposefully collecting objects from those memorials is fairly recent. Maynor says that most scholars agree that the practice dates back to the 1980s, when the National Park Service started collecting tributes left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and making them available in an online archive. Condolence collecting caught on in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

But collecting after a tragedy doesn’t always occur to archival and museum professionals at first. Virginia Tech university archivist Tamara Kennelly, who coordinated the collection of over 500 cubic feet of materials after the shooting there in 2007, says she had little knowledge of the practice when she first started. She recalls being in shock after the shooting and walking over to the spontaneous shrines students set up on campus to memorialize the victims, but not knowing what to do. It was an email from Edward L. Galwin, the Syracuse University archivist who oversaw the Pan Am 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives, that prompted her to develop a condolence collection. Now, whenever a tragedy strikes, it is likely that an archivist or a curator in that community will receive a call or an email from a professional who’s gone through the process, with an offer of help.

When tragedy strikes, an archivist or a curator will likely receive a call or an email from a professional who’s gone through the process, with an offer of help.

Once a decision has been made to collect, staff members move into high gear: obtaining permissions from property owners and local authorities to collect from memorial sites; informing survivors, family members of victims, and other community members; finding boxes and securing space to store the collected items; gathering volunteers; and often diverting all existing resources and staff time to the task. Since memorials usually pop up outdoors, staff members find themselves in a race against time and weather to collect.

Schwartz’s staff showed up at the memorial sites in Orlando every day at 7 or 8 a.m. Once there, writes OCRHC collections manager Whitney Broadaway in the Public Historian, staff “[began] selecting items for preservation based on their unique nature, apparent significance, condition, and vulnerability to the elements.” They photographed each item and documented its location and its relationship to the objects around it. The items would be taken to a collection tent to receive preliminary conservation care and then be shipped to an off-site storage facility.

This process of sorting and collecting items can be emotionally difficult. Many museum staff members, says Schwartz, suffer “secondary trauma” due to this work. She describes the difficulties of handling objects that primarily deal with grief: “We began reading every single card, every single letter. It was out of respect. We would pick something up, and as we tried to process it, we were also trying to process it in our minds. Both physically and mentally—emotionally.” The trauma can last well past the initial days of collecting. “I cried every day for two years,” says Kennelly. “Now I can usually get to a talk maybe and not break down. But it’s very difficult working with that.”

While memorials are the primary sites of gathering objects, institutions with enough staff time and resources sometimes also collect items from other sites, letters and objects sent from outside the community, digital materials like tweets or news content, and oral histories. At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, after the October 1, 2017, shooting in the city, library special collections and archives staff members archived web sources and collected oral histories, while county and state museums took over collecting objects from memorials and other sites. At Virginia Tech, Kennelly saved copies of local and college newspapers, and collected oral histories. In Orlando, museum staff members went into Pulse itself to collect, a process that was especially wrenching.

Schwartz says that dealing with the items, and putting together the one- and two-year remembrance exhibitions, has made her aware of the healing potential of condolence collections. She describes showing items to family members of victims, who she says were “so appreciative” of the work the history center was doing. Parkland Historical Society president Jeff Schwartz (no relation to Pam Schwartz), who coordinated collecting from memorial sites around the city, also speaks of the therapeutic potential for the community and families represented in the collections: “I think at some point when we have an anniversary . . . and we make a presentation of some of these memorial items to the public . . . I think it’s going to aid in the healing.”

Museum, library, and archive professionals also believe that condolence collections have research value. Kennelly says that while the initial thought behind the collection at Virginia Tech was “comfort for the families,” she believes it has great research potential, particularly about grief and how people, not just locally but from around the world, respond to grief and tragic events.

“We would pick something up, and as we tried to process it, we were also trying to process it in our minds.”

The affective component of this type of collecting does, however, carry some pitfalls. In Newtown, where much of the process of sorting and processing was done by volunteers, according to Maynor, many materials considered “distasteful” or “inappropriate” were “discarded before they even had a chance to be collected.” Since the primary focus is on community healing, and there is an air of reverence surrounding the collection process, objects related to the perpetrators or that deal with some of the more unsavory aspects of shootings, such as conspiracy theories, either get thrown away or, if collected, not put on display.

Maynor also cautions that collecting after tragedies should not become an expected part of museum professionals’ jobs. It requires, she says, “an immense amount of work, of time, or resources. It’s very grueling and emotionally demanding work, and depending on your community, it may or may not be an appropriate response.” Processing collected items also takes time; it took Kennelly three years to produce a finding aid for the collections at Virginia Tech, and she still has materials waiting to be dealt with. As Pam Schwartz says, the OCRHC had to “forgo a lot to be able to create the collection.” “Not all museums or communities can support collecting endeavors,” she adds.

Pam Schwartz says that perhaps the practice of condolence collection overall is in need of a second look. “How many tragedy collections does the public want to see?” she asks. “How much in money and resources can we pour into one story in our history?” Orlando, she points out, is not a museum destination, and memorial museums rarely attract repeat visitors. She still believes that she and her staff made the right decision to collect after the Pulse shooting but says she doesn’t recommend that every community do the same. “I think that it’s important to do something in terms of remembrance because it is so important for the families, but I don’t think the world can continue to sustain a museum for every tragedy that happens,” she says.

Maynor says she’s “curious to see if we’re at a turning point” when it comes to creating new condolence collections. With each mass shooting, she says, “people are responding with either apathy or activism” (as in the case of Parkland). “There seems to be much less expression of grief because we’ve been grieving. We’ve been grieving for a decade since Virginia Tech.” She hopes that the country is at a juncture: “My personal hope would be . . . that we’re able to prevent a lot of this from happening in the first place.”

Kritika Agarwal is managing editor of Perspectives. She tweets @kritikaldesi.

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