Archiving mass shooting memorial has been an emotional process for Virginia Beach employees
Anne Miller, Virginia Beach History Museums coordinator, gathers items left in honor of the 12 victims killed in the May 31 mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center in Virginia Beach, Va. on Monday, July 8, 2019. Flowers and other perishable items will be thrown away but personalized items will be archived and family members will be given the opportunity to keep the items.
- Kristen Zeis/Staff
Hundreds of flowers and mementos begin to show wear from over a month of being outdoors at a memorial erected in honor of the 12 victims killed in the May 31 mass shooting at the Municipal Center in Virginia Beach, Va. The items pictured here were photographed on Monday, July 8, 2019.
Amanda Wells, Virginia Beach History Museums curatorial assistant, places items left in memory of shooting victim LaQuita Brown into bags for safe keeping on Monday, July 8, 2019. The items were gathered from a memorial site created in honor of the 12 people killed during the May 31, 2019 mass shooting at the city's Municipal Center.
Inside a small, two-room facility sits a red heart split down the middle and attached to a wooden stick.
“I miss you Mom,” is written on one half of the heart. The other half reads: “Grammy where did you go?”
The heart was originally left at the mass shooting memorial outside Building 11 at the city's municipal complex. It was dedicated to Mary Louise Gayle, one of the 12 victims.
Amanda Wells, a curatorial assistant at the Virginia Beach History Museums, said she’s been stopped in her tracks more than once while sorting the items left for Gayle and the 11 others killed in Building 2on May 31.
“There are these little nuggets that surprise you,” she said, seated in a folding chair in the facility where the objects are being sorted and temporarily stored.
Employees of the Virginia Beach History Museums have been archiving items from the mass shooting memorial for five weeks, meticulously cataloging more than 3,000 mementos paying homage to the 12 victims.
Even after all the items were carefully collected and moved in a van from the memorial, Wells came across details she hadn’t initially noticed.
Wells was working with the city videographer when she first caught sight of the red heart.
“I pointed them out to her, and she kept repeating ‘Where did you go?’ under her breath,” Wells said. “It’s one of those things I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
Anne Miller, the coordinator of Virginia Beach History Museums, said messages written by young children have affected her the most. She’s seen endearingly misspelled words, arts and crafts projects and even hopeful messages to victims like, “I hope you feel better,” written by children who can’t fully understand the magnitude of what happened in their hometown.
She was choked up the first time she saw that "feel better" note.
“It’s kind of sweet,” she said weeks later while measuring a painting of a flower.
Almost every day, Miller, Wells and a few other History Museums employees and volunteers drive to a leased storage facility to chip away at the arduous task of organizing and documenting the thousands of items left at the memorial.
They first began dismantling it on July 8, and in the weeks since they’ve been committed to keeping the mementos in good shape.
They started with the items that couldn’t be salvaged — wet paintings, moldy stuffed animals, broken shells — and some that had to be weeded out, like the countless assortment of painted rocks.
Then they made sure everything they planned on keeping was clean, going so far as vacuuming individual teddy bears.
Next they searched for gifts left with a specific victim in mind, sorting those into boxes labeled with the 12 names to be saved for each family. Miller and her team uploaded photos of these items onto flash drives for each family, who can claim their box if they wish.
“We really tried to get the most relevant and unique items, the items that related to the person, their personality and their life,” she said.
Miller said that process was even more emotionally taxing than dismantling the entire memorial.
“One of the things we didn’t really look at when we were collecting are the cards and letters,” she said. “There have been some really heartfelt letters and cards from friends and co-workers.”
Wells remembers one in particular: a note from a co-worker of one of the victims expressing regret that they never went back inside Building 2 to check on their friend.
Now the team is working on the rest of the collection by measuring, taking notes and photographing the more general items like signs that say #VBStrong and paintings dedicated to all the victims.
Because the work is emotionally draining, Miller said, she and her team try not to spend more than a few hours each day at the storage facility.
Still, she anticipates they have another two or three months of work ahead. They ultimately hope to put an assortment of items on display for the public to see.
Miller's department typically focuses on public programs and educational events. This work has been unlike anything her office has tackled before.
“We’re not a collecting institution for the most part,” she said. “We acquire items if we need them for an exhibit. This has just been a huge volume of items for us to deal with.”
Alyssa Meyers, firstname.lastname@example.org