Desert Companion

Community: ‘We Have to Tell the History’

At the Clark County Museum, cataloging the October 1 memorial objects is an exercise in institutional purpose — and simple humanity

"I regret to make your acquaintance under such awful circumstances,” the email reads. It was October 2, eight hours after the Route 91 concert shooting, and Pamela Schwartz, a history museum curator in Orlando, Florida, was reaching out to her counterparts in Southern Nevada. The subject line: “Collecting after the Shooting.”

“We had hoped that we would never lose the designation of being the location of the largest shooting by a single gunman in American history, but here just 15 months after our nightclub shooting, we have. … There will be temporary memorials, there will be items from the families and stories from the survivors and it will be a difficult task, but rapid response collecting is important in memorializing these events, interpreting the story much later, and plays a huge role in community healing.”

Las Vegas, Orlando and Charleston, South Carolina — to name just a few cities impacted by mass shootings — belong to a growing network of communities that share best practices when news breaks of mass violence. The first responders send cards. Victims’ families and survivors connect. Grief and trauma counselors share treatment methods. And museum officials reach out with guidance on saving memorial items because, after all, these are historic events.

“Our job is to educate,” says Cynthia Sanford, registrar at the Clark County Museum, which has led the effort to save October 1 memorial items. It’s not something all afflicted communities do. There are those that prefer to discard the heartbreaking relics, and in areas with wet climates, the posters and teddy bears and artwork that collect can become too ruined to retain their meaning. Here, though, cultural institutions were willing and able to collect memorial artifacts in the wake of the shooting. So far, the Clark County Museum has catalogued more than 15,000 of these symbols of grief and resiliency, the most poignant of which will be on display for the anniversary.

“We don’t always remember things because we’re proud of them,” Sanford says of the collection. “We have to tell the history, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable.”

Shortly after the shooting, the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas, the Mob Museum, UNLV Library Special Collections, the Oral History Research Center at UNLV, the Las Vegas News Bureau, and Clark County Museum leaders gathered to coordinate the effort. Public works employees did the heavy lifting. Road and park maintenance crews kept the memorials tidy and transferred items to the archival institutions six weeks after October 1, when county officials decided that normalcy should return to the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, where crosses and flowers began to appear within hours of the shooting.

A 25-foot trailer made the first delivery to the Clark County Museum. At Heritage Street, a set of relocated historic buildings on museum property, Sanford and two volunteers began cataloging the items in an old Boulder City train depot.

There were 58 wooden crosses bearing the names at the shooting’s 58 fatal victims. The symbolic grave markers sat in boxes with the items that surrounded them — paintings, hearts, cowboy hats, boots, candles, alcohol bottles with messages on the labels, stuffed toys, and more. Everything was separated into categories to streamline the documentation process. All personalized items would be preserved for future exhibits, but it was impractical to save unmarked candles or coins, so only those that had been altered in some way (marked with an “R.I.P.” or “RT91LOVE,” for example) were kept.

The exhibit includes a description of the shooting, but is focused on these moments from the aftermath. “We’re trying to tell the story of the community,” says Sanford. “This was an event that happened, but what’s far more important to us is how the community reacted, because that’s what tells us about who we are.”

They performed minor cleaning, but in the interest of authenticity, nothing is spotless. If a stuffed animal is shaken, dust will come out. Many of the items remain covered in candle wax, and though that’s not good for the artifact, Sanford said, it’s part of what happened. They sat in the sun for several weeks, in desert wind and dust. The feeling is that without the wear, these items might not have the same impact.

To preserve the story, the museum is also asking people who laid these items at memorial sites to share their narratives for reference in future exhibits. Some of the artwork obviously took many hours to produce, and there are many personal notes written on candle labels and T-shirts. “In most history museums, the story behind the object is almost more important than the object itself,” Sanford says. “And that is definitely true of this collection.”

A volunteer, Lynn Lenart, is engaged in the tedious work of labeling and bagging rosaries when I visit. In all, the Clark County Museum received 12 trailers’ worth of memorial items. For the past 10 months, a team of 25 volunteers has worked under Sanford’s supervision to catalogue each piece. They described, numbered, and photographed each item for the museum database as well.

“I just moved here three months before the shooting,” Lenart says. “I guess I felt since I didn’t know any of the victims and I’m not from here, it would be something emotional I could do, where people who wanted to help who knew the victims would have a harder time dealing with it.”

Lynn Mertens, another volunteer, put the necklaces into heart shapes for the photos because “everyone should have a heart for what happened to those people.” She and another woman, Chris Barker-Stone, both mentioned that they were unable to donate blood, so this was their contribution to the healing process: sweat and tears. “It keeps you emotionally involved with what happened,” Mertens says. “I don’t want to lose that. I’m glad people are still keeping it in the news because it shouldn’t be forgotten.”

The cataloging work took more than 7,000 volunteer hours. Of the 15,000-plus items, there are 405 rosaries, 416 stuffed toys, 450 candles, about 1,400 painted rocks, and about 1,500 artificial flowers. Barker-Stone says, “In the beginning, we were all crying. It was tough going for a while, but we’re okay now.”

Some victims’ families have been granted private tours of the collection, and many out-of-state survivors told Sanford they intend to visit for the one-year anniversary. According to Schwartz, the Orlando-based memorial curator, the people most impacted by these tragedies often feel grateful that a museum honored their loved one’s memory, and for those participating in the collection work, there’s solace too.

    “After these events, a lot of people struggle,” she says. “Some go give blood, some donate water, some people make memorial items, and for other people, what we do is preserve the memorial items somebody else is making. Everybody tries to find the role that they can fulfill. We’re incredibly honored to be able to serve our community in that way.”

How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials is on exhibit through February 24 at the Clark County Museum, 1830 S. Boulder Highway, 702-455-7955.

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