Years ago, when the National Council on Public History booked Las Vegas for its 2018 annual meeting, it looked to be just one more of the 20,000 conventions and conferences expected to be held in the city this year.
Then the Oct. 1 mass shooting happened on the Strip.
Now experts in condolence memorials are sharing their knowledge to help the Southern Nevada community heal, six months after a lone gunman opened fire on a concert crowd, killing 58 and wounding hundreds.
With breakout segments like “Documenting Resilience: Condolence Collection Projects in the Wake of Violence,” the national gathering of academics plans to discuss how communities such as Orlando, Newtown, Conn., and Isla Vista, Calif., responded to mass killings.
Melissa Barthelemy is a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara and condolence collection expert.
She said the panel she will be hosting will include a librarian from UCSB who will talk about collecting and curating items left at memorials from the deadly shooting near that campus in 2014 that left six people dead. And an expert from Virginia who has collected and curated emails and other electronic messages sent in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.
Barthelemy said the collection, archiving and exhibition of items from pop-up memorials are a new area of history research.
These kinds of memorials really only started to appear in the last few decades. She said many people point to the many impromptu memorials left in the wake of Princess Diana's death as a contributor to the rise of spontaneous memorials.
Pam Schwartz is chief curator of the Orange County (Fla.) Regional History Center and manages the collection of items left at the scene of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.
She said not every community is impacted the same way by a mass casualty event and therefore not every community reacts in the same way.
Those differences change what is collected and how it is exhibited.
“The biggest thing for people to understand, especially people who have not been through a similar sort of situation, is that one size doesn’t fit all,” she said.
She said there are thousands of items left at these memorials and some of them are not appropriate for display. Items from the so-called "dark archive" are not displayed. The dark archive is the items from the crime scene. In her case, it is items left inside the nightclub where a gunman killed 49 people.
Schwartz and her team photographed every item left at the memorials.
“At the one-year point, we literally went through tens of thousands of photos and just anything that we knew the story of or that really caught our eye are the items we started with,” she said.
She said the focus of any exhibition should be on what will help the community with its healing process.
Cynthia Sanford is the registrar at the Clark County Museum. She is heading up the effort to collect and catalog the items left at the two memorials in Las Vegas.
She said the museum has between 15,000 and 20,000 items from the memorials.
“Our role as a museum is to preserve the history of Southern Nevada,” she said, “Unfortunately, this event is now part of our history.”
She said the museum is planning an exhibit for the one year anniversary of the shooting, but there is not a plan for a permanent home for the items.
Collecting and cataloging the items from pop-up memorials brings a different set of emotions than researching another part of history that happened decades or centuries ago.
“It is very difficult because you are part of that community and so you have to go through your own personal emotions,” Schwartz said.
When they were first collecting items in Orlando, Schwartz and her team were reading every single card or note left at the scene. She said that became too difficult and eventually they had to put on their "business hats" and just collect the items.
Barthelemy said for her it is difficult because she has become friends with some of the families of the victims.
"In history, we like to think we’re objective and have a little more distance from the subjects that we’re actually studying," she said.
But her motivation for her work has been helping the community.
Sanford said it is hard to separate yourself from the work and the emotions of the tragedy. However, she said staying focused on the importance of the work has helped.
“You have to remember you are honoring the victims, the survivors, the loved ones, the people who left objects at the memorial. So, every object you work on is someone’s story,” she said.
The conference, which concludes Saturday, is not open to the public
Melissa Barthelemy, UC Santa Barbara graduate student and condolence collection expert; Cynthia Sanford, registrar Clark County Museum; Pam Schwartz, chief curator of the Orange County Regional History Center and the One Orlando Collection