Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial

When faced with tragedies, communities may find healing in creating memorials. Museums and other sites are increasingly choosing to collect and interpret the story of the memorial alongside that of the event that prompted it. Here are three techniques from Leadership in History Awards winning projects for remembering tragic events and honoring those who were impacted, as well as  ideas for collecting and interpreting memorials:

Preserve Spontaneous Memorials

In the wake of tragedy, people often create spontaneous memorials at the site of the event. Cards, candles, signs, and teddy bears are a small list of the types of physical artifacts people use to create these memorials. They are deeply emotional and they exist as sites of mourning and solidarity.

When possible, permanent memorials should include parts of these spontaneous makeshift memorials. Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial  included a selection of items in their exhibit from the memorial that people created in Copley Square following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Similarly, We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista and the May 23, 2014 Isla Vista Memorial Archive worked with the people who left cards, letters, and artwork at the memorial that responded to the 2014 killings of six University of California, Santa Barbara students to incorporate these objects into their interpretation.

Create Space for Reflection

Tragedies are often impetuses for reflection, contemplation, and questions. Some of this reflection is internal and asks questions like: what is my purpose? How do I live life to the fullest? How do I go forward honoring these victims? Some of the reflection is external and asks questions like: How did this happen? How could this happen? How can evil be stronger than good? Successful memorials create spaces which help answer some of the “how did” external questions and provides a setting for reflection, both individually and communally, on the internal questions.

Both the Dear Boston and We Remember Them created spaces for meaningful reflection. The award description for Dear Boston says that people “lingered. Some came back multiple times. They wrote powerful messages on the hope trees and in the comment book. They cried. The collective energy and emotional catharsis in the gallery were palpable to all who entered.” Likewise, one reviewer of We Remember Them noted: “It was a powerful, painful, honest exhibition, free of cant and cheap grace.” By honestly sharing emotions and giving people ways in which they could respond within the exhibit, these two memorial exhibits served as places of reflection.

We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista and the May 23, 2014 Isla Vista Memorial Archive

Turn Towards Hope

In addition to creating spaces for mourning and feelings of grief, memorials can help to direct people’s energies towards creating a more hopeful future. Often after a tragedy people want to do something; they are eager to find a way to honor the tragedy’s victims and bring more goodness and goodwill into the world.

Dear Boston used an interactive hope tree to help visitors connect with conversations about how to turn their emotions into actions which made the city better. It also made many of them feel connected to something greater than themselves. We Remember Them created a powerful statement for the Isla Vista community that, although wounded by violence, the community’s respect for the bonds that connect its various members remained strong and unbroken. In both cases, the exhibits suggested a hopeful way for visitors to go forward.

To learn more about the specific projects from the award winners, visit their project profiles:

Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial –#BostonBetter; Boston, MA

We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista and the May 23, 2014 Isla Vista Memorial Archive – The University of California, Santa Barbara, Public History Program, Division of Student Affairs, Division of Humanities and Fine Arts, and UCSB Library, Special Research Collections – May 23, 2014 Isla Vista Memorial Archive; Santa Barbara, CA



Want to write for AASLH? Learn more and submit a blog post here.