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Boulder Museum Works With Past Mass Shooting Survivors To Balance Grief While Preserving History

Hours after 10 people were killed in a mass shooting in a Boulder King Soopers, memorials began popping up with flowers, cards and artwork commemorating the victims. The Museum of Boulder is working with local officials, as well as organizations across the country, to archive this moment in history while giving the community space to grieve.

KUNC arts reporter Stacy Nick spoke with the museum’s executive director, Lori Preston, to learn more about the Boulder Strong Project.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Stacy Nick: During the past week, the Museum of Boulder has been in contact with two museums in communities where mass shootings occurred: Orlando, the site of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, and Las Vegas, where there was a mass shooting at a concert in 2017. Those had to have been really hard conversations.

Lori Preston: Yes, they were hard in that we share the common denominator, and yet in many ways they made things a little bit easier. When you have a model like theirs that talks you through how to begin to approach a situation — a crisis — like this, it was incredibly helpful. In particular, Pamela Schwartz of the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando and dealt with the Pulse shooting really led the initiative. She contacted us within 24 hours and said, “We want to talk to you through what we did that was right and what we did that was wrong.”

If you don’t mind me asking, what advice did they offer?

One of the things I really appreciated is they lead with, this is a task regarding an unthinkable act and as a museum be aware of the toll that it can take working with materials that deal with grief, take care of your own health and well-being as you move through it. But the second — and really probably even a higher priority — is just to be mindful that in this moment these objects, these pop-up memorials, are there for a purpose, and that purpose is to provide comfort and healing and respect for a community.

A visitor writes a note on part of a memorial to the 10 victims of recent mass shooting in Boulder.
Courtesy Museum of Boulder
A visitor writes a note on part of a memorial to the 10 victims of recent mass shooting in Boulder.

Through these conversations that you've been having, you're developing the Boulder Strong project. What can you tell me about the effort?

With regard to an exhibit, I don't know. Will it be an exhibit or will it be that we archive and preserve these precious items and we have them behind the scenes? One of the stories that Orange County historical society's executive director talked us through was how some of those who had left items at memorial sites came to the museum a couple of years later to say, “I left this. Do you have it?” And they were able to say, “You know what? We organized this. We have it documented. Yes, we can find it and yes, we have it, and it's yours.” They've even given back to those who left donations or left something at the site.

So it's not ours to determine at this moment. It's definitely not an effort to someday have this grandiose exhibit. We just need to listen to our community right now to find out what they need to heal, what they need to process, where do they need to go five years from now on this date to absorb what happened.

This event obviously has had an immense impact, not only directly on the Boulder community, but Coloradans and people across the country, and I wondered, what do you hope that this project will offer not only the Boulder community itself, but the larger public?

As we put out a vision, I think part of it is to safeguard artifacts that will eventually transport any kind of visitor to the past and will preserve those unwritten oral histories. We hope to also encourage community creation and engagement.

One of our current exhibits was created in response to COVID, and while we were working on that, all of a sudden the marches began to take place for Black Lives Matter on Pearl Street. So we shifted the exhibit in that moment. Then it was the fires in the area and we shifted the exhibit in that moment again.

Currently this exhibit that a year and a half ago wasn't even in our minds has been created and is in our main gallery. It's called“Drawing Parallels” and it draws parallels back to 1918 and the Spanish flu. In the middle of it, we have this incredible art piece by a Boulder student in 10th grade of the Black Lives Matter march. And then on the east wall, we made a call for artists. And so what that did was create a space for 16 local artists — 65 submitted — who created something that drew a parallel to something that's happened since March. And so you may see an image of an artistic rendering of a lynching and you see another painting of Pearl Street pop-up restaurants that were created because they couldn't have people inside their restaurants. And then you'll see a photograph of a family who was meeting one another socially-distanced with masks on.

So part of it is to encourage community creation and engagement in any way that we can, while also providing the historical content to reach a broader audience across generations even after we’re gone.

Hundreds of flowers line the fence at a makeshift memorial to the 10 victims of the mass shooting at a Boulder King Soopers.
Courtesy Museum of Boulder
Hundreds of flowers line the fence at a makeshift memorial to the 10 victims of the mass shooting at a Boulder King Soopers.

How will you be collecting the stories?

One thing is to photograph them. That was our immediate attention. We were on the memorial sites that are popping up across the city immediately to take photographs. We're also collecting social media responses. We also want to say that if anyone wishes to bring an object by, we will look at it as our curator of collections has been trained to document any kind of material donated to the museum.

We are also being mindful on the sites that eventually those will come down. And there are already questions and were questions last week, even from our mayor who said, “I don't know where these objects are going to go.” So we were quick to put up a sign that just says we're happy to preserve those because we're equipped to do that. We are happy to preserve things that could be impacted by weather — a big snowstorm coming in or rain or wind that could take some of these things away. We're happy to collect them.

We're not there to strip the memorial sites. We're not there to tell our story. This is their story, and we want to serve as that. I had an unfortunate phone call this morning that perceived it as a money maker for the museum, and that was really sad for me to hear that that was the interpretation. By no means are we making money from something like this. We’re a repository, we’re a conduit. We’re there because we have the expertise in archiving and preservation and whether these things ever come out and are visible to the public is for the public to determine, not for us to determine.

I think we'll all probably handle it and respond to it differently. And that's appropriate because we have people who are going to want to absorb it differently. Some people will want to research it and look at it digitally and online, and others will want to come in and touch an object and others will want to go and look at a piece of art. And some in our community will say, “I don't want to know anything else about this. I want to move on and not even think about it.” So we have to be mindful of all of those different responses.

This seems like it's a really delicate balancing act.

I think a big job of the Museum of Boulder is going to be not only items and artifacts, but we feel an important role in collecting oral histories. The museum in Orange County guided us through that. They said, “Look, we waited. And a few months later we began to take the oral histories. We went in and we interviewed the families of the victims. We interviewed those in the community who were on site and actively preventing things from happening.”

They shared that the FBI had contacted them as a museum and had them come to the actual site of the Pulse nightclub once they had completely done their work. They actually had the museum people come first to the site to collect things.

Those are heavy and things that we actually hadn't even thought that could be potentially tasked of us. Yet, we're one of the oldest institutions in Boulder and the only institution really who has done this consistently. For 76 years we've captured the not-so-pretty stories of Boulder like the KKK, and we've also captured stories of how we preserved open space or how we invented things at Ball Aerospace. And that's the beauty and also the challenge of the Museum of Boulder.

For a limited time the Museum of Boulder is offering free admission. Those wishing to leave memorial items there are welcome to.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for March 29. You can find the full episode here.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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