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Historians Preserve Memorials After Mass Shootings


We have two interesting stories from Orlando, Fla., for you. First, we head to the Pulse Nightclub where mourners continue to place flowers, posters, candles and other expressions of sympathy and grief where a gunman shot 49 people almost three months ago. As mementos pile up, archivists are taking some away. It turns out that a new protocol has emerged to preserve items left at memorials after mass shootings. Amy Green of member station WMFE tells us more.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: Pam Schwartz kneels and pulls from a bush a weathered piece of red construction paper decorated with handmade hearts. It reads sending love and support during this difficult time and New Jersey loves Orlando.

PAM SCHWARTZ: It's kind of peaceful kind of - try to clear as much as the sand and dirt and dried leaves and things off of it.

GREEN: Schwartz is leading an effort by the Orange County Regional History Center to preserve these items before central Florida's humidity and frequent rains claim them. Hundreds of expressions of sympathy line the chain-link fence in front of Pulse, now shrouded by a dark drape hanging from the enclosure. There are flags from across the globe scribbled with signatures. There are bows, stars and plush toys. There are photos of the 49 people who were killed by the gunmen in the June 12 rampage.

ASHLEY MAYNOR: One reason to archive and keep some of these responses is that we don't fully understand these events right now or maybe even the ways that we are grieving in the present.

GREEN: Ashley Maynor is a University of Tennessee professor who began researching community responses to mass tragedies after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech where she was teaching at the time.

MAYNOR: We're gathering data and preserving some information that's going to help us understand ourselves once we have more time and distance and remove, so we're kind of preserving a little something to help us understand ourselves later on down the line.

GREEN: In Littleton. Colo., memorial items were preserved after the attack on Columbine High School. Newtown, Conn., was so overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of items it received after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some were turned into sacred soil to be used in the construction of an eventual permanent memorial. Charleston, S.C., recognized early it needed guidance with its memorial items after the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Celeste Wiley of the South Carolina Historical Society says she and her colleagues began by saving items from the weather.

CELESTE WILEY: We contacted the archivist in Boston and the archivist in Colorado and got their action plans for when this happens. And then we created our own action plan. And when the Pulse Club shooting happened, we became part of that chain.

GREEN: In Orlando, the items end up in a temperature-controlled archive room of the history center where they're left to dry. Schwartz hunches over a table filled with Pulse memorial items. She takes up a palm-sized silver box containing a rosary someone brought from the Vatican and carefully begins wrapping it in paper.

SCHWARTZ: Unless you custom-make every box, there's always going to be some space and you want at least a little bit of space around your artifact so it's not rubbing.

GREEN: Some 2,500 memorial items have been collected. Each one will be boxed up and transported to an offsite storage site. Eventually, they'll be cataloged with any relevant information. Back at Pulse, Schwartz and her team are gathered around a poster wrapped in plastic, a tribute created by a younger sister for one of the victims.

SCHWARTZ: There's any hole in that and it starts to condensate, that marker's all going to bleed, and so this is one of our hard moments where we have to decide leave it and let people enjoy it and see it and experience it or take it and save it for the future.

GREEN: The team members decide to leave the poster, but watch it for moisture damage. At that point, they'll collect and begin preserving this item, too. For NPR News, I'm Amy Green in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Green