More than a month after bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the spontaneous public memorial is still growing in Copley Square: ribbons, baseball hats, American flags, Irish flags, flowers, homemade “Boston strong” banners, crosses, and piles and piles of running shoes, which have become the dominant icon of grief after an event that cut down runners on their own turf. “It’s like this big huge outdoor cathedral,” a Dorchester woman told the Globe a few weeks ago. “I’m just drawn here.”
In commemorating such an important event to the life of the city, the memorial feels like more than just a temporary outpouring of sorrow: It’s also a part of history. Within two weeks of the bombings, Mayor Thomas M. Menino gave the city archives the task of preserving and archiving the memorial materials, and archivists began to remove the most fragile paper items in early May. Sturdier items will remain until the mayor’s office decides otherwise.
The instinct to preserve the Copley Square shrine is understandable, even noble. The banners, shoes, and flowers represent a remarkable spontaneous remembrance of a major civic event; they could be a crucial part of future museum exhibits or scholarly work. And to a city still grappling with sorrow over a story that remains in the headlines, it would also simply feel wrong to load the assemblage into garbage trucks. “That sneaker was a sneaker a minute ago, but a when a person places that sneaker on that pole, it’s infused with meaning and emotion,” Rainey Tisdale, an independent curator who spearheaded an ad hoc preservation group with the help of the New England Museum Association, said. “It becomes an artifact.”
Shrines like the one in Copley Square now appear after natural disasters, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and even individual deaths with a social or political aspect, like the recent shooting of a gay man in New York’s Greenwich Village. Though their scale seems to have increased along with mass media culture, there has always been a human instinct to mark meaningful sites with tokens of mourning and presence—including ephemeral ones, like the flowers left by gravestones. This impulse goes back to the earliest monuments, or to piles of stones on grave sites.
But the kind of preservation effort surrounding the memorial for the Boston Marathon bombings is something relatively new: an attempt to save everything associated with a civic tragedy. The idea of preserving these monuments to public loss is raising new kinds of problems for archivists, from economic questions—archives require enormous space and resources—to legal and aesthetic ones. They pit the limits of our capacity to preserve against our unlimited capacity for testimony and grief.
Over the past several decades, these challenges have spawned a range of solutions. In Oklahoma City, objects from the vast “Memory Fence” encircling the site of the 1995 bombing were collected and catalogued by archivists, and eventually incorporated into the permanent memorial (over the aesthetic objections of some). After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, the Colorado Historical Society moved 200,000 items from a park shrine into a federally owned warehouse. Virginia Tech created an online archive to document the shrines to the victims of the mass shooting there in 2007. (The city of Boston has already started a Tumblr site, One Boston, documenting many of the notes and objects in Copley Square.)
The tension between saving and letting go is age-old, but such memorials are forcing a fresh and very public reckoning with what we want to remember, and why. “What we have now is the ability to see and ask questions about [memorializing] in ways we didn’t have hundreds of years ago,” said Edward Linenthal, a professor of history at Indiana University who has studied the Oklahoma City memorial and others. The answers we come to are likely to shape how these tragedies are incorporated into our history as a nation—and in a more immediate sense, how the people of Boston remember what happened on April 15.
At Texas A&M University in 1999, 12 people, including 11 students, were killed by the collapse of 59-foot-tall stack of logs intended as a traditional pre-football bonfire. The college’s administration assigned Sylvia Grider, then a professor of anthropology, the task of collecting and archiving all salvageable objects from the memorial that bloomed on campus. She had help from several archaeologists in her department and a committed team of student volunteers.Continued...