Insta-Memory: Dismantling the Boston Marathon bombing memorial

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barlow-crossesThe City of Boston took down the Boston Marathon Memorial on June 25.  The memorial began life at the sites of the twin bombings on Boylston Street in the immediate aftermath of the explosions there on April 15.  The city relocated the memorial to Copley Square once Boylston and surrounding streets re-opened to traffic the following week.  Since then, the memorial continued to grow, as people left behind their mementos to the three people who died and the over 260 who were injured. Eventually, most of the materials in the monument will find their way into the City of Boston’s archives.

That, of course, brings up an interesting question of what the memorial means when it’s dismantled.  It seems to me that the memorial is only that memorial when it’s whole.  The entire site has been carefully curated by city workers, as well as some locals whom I’ve seen moving items around so that the general organization of the memorial remained intact.  Either way, disembodied in some basement, with running shoes, baseball caps, placards, chalkboards, and photographs catalogued and placed in plastic bags and archival boxes, all these items will be is what they are, rather than the intensely powerful statement they were when they were carefully arranged and curated at the northwest corner of Copley Square.

barlow-chalkboardIt’s very easy to be cynical about insta-commemoration and a society that appears to mediate its experiences through the lenses of the cameras on their iPhones.  I have been to concerts where people spend the entire time watching the events on the stage through their cameras.  The same is true of the Boston bombing sites, Boylston Street in general and the Marathon Memorial in particular.  Each and every time I’ve walked along Boylston or been at Copley Square in the past several months, there have been rafts of people, of all ages, genders, ethnicities, Americans and not, Bostonians and tourists, clicking away at the actual locations of the bombs, at the outside of Marathon Sports, located at the finish line, at the finish line itself, which has received a new paint job.  Many people, I have thought in my more cranky moments, are not getting a chance to experience the atmosphere, the hushed sounds, of the actual memorial because they’re too busy taking pictures or filming video.

And yet, it is also not trite to talk about the sense of awe and wonderment that one got looking at the memorial, in walking through it, talking to the people there, and chatting with the police who were always there standing guard.  When the TV trucks were still there throughout April and early May, it felt like this was performative.  TV cameras were aimed up and down Boylston, they were aimed at the memorial, and occasionally, reporters would be standing in front of them, talking about the investigation, about the city healing from the wounds of the bombings.  Once the cameras left, it seems like Bostonians and visitors (including some who were wounded on April 15) let out a collective sigh of relief and went about their business of grieving, of feeling overwhelmed, of feeling a sense of loss, if not of innocence, of something akin to that.  Boston is not the first American city to feel the bite of terrorism, nor is this the first time that Boston itself has experienced such acts (look back to the immediate World War I era).  And yet, as one woman explained to me, Boston is a small city, it’s a friendly city and a relatively quiet one. Why would someone want to hurt us?

barlow-hats2This is what made the memorial so visceral.  I walked through it some four or five times between late April and mid-June.  Every time there was a sense of awe in the air, whether those cameras were pointed at us or not, and people became softer, gentler, more vulnerable even.  Certainly that is the end result of terrorism, and the desired outcome for the terrorists, to leave the victim population feeling vulnerable.  But that’s not quite what was in the air at the memorial. In this case, it was a sense of awe and being overwhelmed by the response of people, feeling vulnerable through that, our connection as human beings.  There were countless pairs of running shoes, the obvious symbol of the bombing.  But there was also hundreds, if not thousands, of hand-written notes, offering prayer, thoughts, and encouragement, as well as exhortations to remain Boston Strong.  There were Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, Revolution, and Celtics hats, of course, but also the hats of the Boston teams’ greatest rivals, a gesture of solidarity.  Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Montréal, Los Angeles, Miami, sports fans from all those cities were saying they stood by Boston.  Tourists from all over the world left their best wishes.  And people left behind their photos of Marathon Monday.  They left behind their memories of where they were when the bombs went off.

So, rather than be cynical, I think that memorials like the one that sprouted up spontaneously on Boylston Street in Boston should be taken seriously and be recognised for what they are: an attempt by people living in an inchoate, technically mediated, and ultimately isolating society to come to terms with individual and collective grief.  The memorial was about remembering what happened on Marathon Monday and never forgetting those events, but it was also about healing and coming to terms with the attack on the city and its most visible international event.  And I think the memorial has gone a long way towards allowing Bostonians, and Americans as a whole, to begin the process of healing in the aftermath of the shock of the bombs.

barlow-hatsAnd so now the memorial is gone, Copley Square has returned to business as usual; there is nothing visible to mark the Marathon bombings.  Bostonians and tourists no longer gather at Copley Square to express their grief.  I find myself wondering what will happen to all those ball caps, running shoes, and Marathon bibs in the basement of the Boston City Archives.  With no memorial for an event that occurred not even three months ago, and none planned, what, ultimately, do these instantaneous, temporary memorials mean?  Is the work of healing in Boston done?

~ John Matthew Barlow is current Visiting Lecturer at Salem State University, and a Canadian transplant in Boston.

All photos are by the author.

  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Matthew. I wanted to chime in to let everyone know that there are indeed plans underway to exhibit the artifacts from the marathon bombing. I have been working with the New England Museum Association to organize a loose coalition of local museums and archives in this effort. Our first task has been to make sure the artifacts and materials from the event are preserved. Yes, the items from the makeshift memorial are going to the Boston City Archives, but there are other significant artifacts–not from the memorial but from the event itself–that have not yet found homes in public collections.

    Second, we are currently raising funding to mount an exhibition for the one-year anniversary next April. We’re envisioning this exhibition as a place where members of the public can gather, process their memories and emotions from the bombing, and then transform them into collective civic engagement–not just #BostonStrong but #BostonBetter. Exhibiting a large group of running shoes, for example, in such an environment will not be the same thing as seeing them out on Copley Square, but there will be a lot of meaning in them, nonetheless. One of the big questions we want to tackle with this project is what exactly do members of the public want from their civic institutions when events like this happen? I’m sure you’ve noticed, Matthew, that Bostonians aren’t all on the same page about this event. On one end of the continuum are people who just want to get on with their lives, on the other end are those who think about it every day and still can’t bring themselves to walk down Boylston Street. Some are clear that the materials from the makeshift memorial should be saved; some think they have no value and should be thrown in the trash. But exactly how are people distributed along this continuum–what percentage in each camp–and how can museums and archives help as many of them as possible get what they need to heal and keep moving forward together as one community? We’re hoping to do some hard-core audience research around this issue to serve as Boston’s contribution to the emerging best practices on museums and archives during times of tragedy.

    Back to the objects from the makeshift memorial: it’s important to point out that many of them have notes written directly on them that permanently altered their meaning. A number of those running shoes have messages like “You have my heart, you are my home/Boston Strong” and “Everyday, I run for the victims & their families” written in marker along the edge of the sole–so that even when they are simply sitting on a shelf in the City Archives, separated from their context at the makeshift memorial, they can never go back to being just ordinary pairs of running shoes.

    Lastly, I want to make sure everyone in the public history community knows about the great work by our colleagues at Northeastern University’s digital humanities lab. They are developing a digital archive of the marathon bombing at and will also be conducting an oral history project. Please spread the word and encourage people to upload their memories, stories, and photos to their site.

  2. Regarding the omnipresent camera phones and the people with them: I think this is not voyeurism or trivializing pain, but rather a way to defer the process of grief and memorialize the event at the same time. The location is in the middle of a busy city. People have to go about their daily lives. Snapping a picture as they pass the insta-memorials saves the moment for later recall and processing, giving the person an opportunity to meditate on the event, the memorial, and their own personal feelings at a less-busy time.
    I assume these phone-photographs will soon appear on the individual’s social media outlets, Facebook, etc. I believe that most often, on these sites, the photographs will be accompanied by some form of narration and even, interpretation (“this is what this meant to me”) by the photographer. This allows them to construct their own version of events and articulate their intensely personal feelings of rage, grief, or sadness.
    Instead of being a form of detachment or trivialization, I believe that such photos are actually a source of engagement. Engagement by documenting: “I stood at This Place when I took this photograph.” (In other words, I was at this Shrine to pay my respects.) Engagement by declaring and publishing their thoughts and emotions to their friends and/or the world via social media. Such photographs may not show “awe and respect” in the customary way of the 20th century, but I believe they certainly do so in a modern 21st century way.
    Sharing via social media allows both an individual and communal response. Individual by providing a personally-selected scene captured in a photograph. Individual by adding commentary, instructing others on how the image should be interpreted. And at the same time, social media enables the broader community to respond to the individual’s image and commentary, sharing in the grief, consoling one another, and extending sympathy.
    I do believe that such behavior has the opportunity to become a type of civic engagement, or even corporate grief.
    I think the virtual presence and activities, in response to such tragedies, like the more public insta-memorial, is an important subject worthy of further study in general, and in particular by social and public historians.

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