Spontaneously archiving

In the world of post disaster community recovery we often talk about, and with, people who suddenly find themselves doing recovery work in the aftermath. If you had asked them before the disaster what they thought their professional life might look like after, well, most people haven’t actually thought about it*. Those who have, figure work will probably look much like it did before the disaster but probably more stressful. Uh, yeah. And anyway, what is this new, increased workload going to be about?

There are some people, like those who work in local government or social service organisations, that know they will have a role or that it will change their work focus for awhile and probably a long while. There are others that, well, it comes out of left field, completely. There’s no training, no planning and relatively little support. It’s just, here, go.

In the world of memorials, this is particularly true for people involved in managing spontaneous memorials. Particularly when there is a desire to keep or preserve the memory of spontaneous memorials. In the last few weeks I have visited Boston and Paris and met some incredible Archivist’s who are preserving and cataloging the spontaneous memorials that emerged after the Boston Marathon bombing and Paris terror attacks.

Boston Marathon bombing – April 15, 2013

The totally lovely Marta taking me through cards and letters left at the Boston Marathon bombing memorial.
One of many archive boxes containing cards and letters left at the Boylston St spontaneous memorial after the Boston Marathon bombing.
Boxes and boxes of material from the Boston Marathon bombing memorials. Anyone can visit the Boston City Archives and request to view the memorial articles. Marta will take a selection to the special viewing room at the Archives.

Spontaneous memorials are usually made up of bouquets of flowers and cards but depending on the type of event, the location and the community impacted the items and messages left can vary. At the Boston Marathon bombing memorials, many of the objects were related to the Marathon itself and the marathon community. The photos below show some of the many sneakers left and a box of running bibs (these were not just from the Boston Marathon either but from other runs and marathons).

Emergency service workers also contributed to the memorials with police from a range of regions adding their patches to the memorial. The photo in the bottom left is of a vest from a doctor who was working at the Marathon on the day of the bombing. The presence of so many physicians at the Marathon site on the day of the bombing likely saved the lives of many people who were seriously wounded.

The photo on the right is a specially made flag from US soldiers who were serving in Afghanistan at the time of the bombing. It is unknown how this came to be at the memorial but is a great example of the how often people contribute to spontaneous memorials even when they are not physically at the location.

There is often a large number of cards and letters at spontaneous memorials that are from people who have experienced a similar traumatising events. We saw this in the notes and condolence cards left at the Sydney siege memorial. The photo below is an example of one of many of these from Boston.

A note to the families affected by the Boston Marathon bombing from a family affected by the September 11 terror attacks.

Paris attacks – November 13, 2015

It was really interesting to visit Paris straight after being in Boston. The Boston Marathon bombing was over three years ago (not long is disaster recovery years though) and the Paris attacks less than a year ago so I was interested to see where they were up to in Paris.

Candles, flowers and notes are still being left at the Place de la République.

The video below shows a closer view of the memorial at the Place de la République.

Three years on the Boston City Archives have completed their archiving work, Paris are still very much in the middle. While all the preservation work of the paper/card items is completed they are still in the process of digitising them. They are also still determining how to store the objects as these are not the usual type of thing an Archives, well archives. Most will go to Musée Carnavale, the museum of the history of Paris. While I didn’t get a look at the letters and cards, there was lots of objects to check out.

People leave all sorts of things at spontaneous memorials. Mathilde from the Paris City Archives with an electric guitar left at the Bataclan memorial site.

The items left at the Paris memorial were very representative of young, music loving people that were killed in the attacks.

Sometimes things take on a life of their own at spontaneous memorials. The video below shows a mural that was painted on a tarpaulin at one of the sites. Unfortunately as tarpaulin isn’t the best base for paint it may not preserve very well, but the Archives are doing their best.

The Paris City Archives contacted all schools in the Paris area and invited them to contribute to the memorial if they wished. They did. The Archives have also received many notes and letters sent to Parisian schools from schools overseas.

*This is fair enough, most people don’t think about disasters all the time. Which is entirely normal behaviour. Much to the frustration of myself and colleagues who believe all this is endlessly interesting and SURELY, just surely, everyone out there in the world is as interested as us. Apparently not, the number of people we have collectively put to sleep in bars is probably about 4,329**.

**Totally made up, but likely accurate.

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