Museums and the Marathon Bombings: New Perspectives

Last week I posted a reflection on the varied responses of museums in Boston in the immediate aftermath of the Marathon Bombings–from closing in honor of the victims to free admission in solidarity with the community  to direct outreach to the injured children and families.

This week I direct you to two thoughtful and heartfelt posts, Our Collective Memory, Parts 1 and 2, by Rainey Tisdale.  Rainey is a museum professional in Boston who is interested in city history. These two posts document her repeated visits to the site(s) of the bombings themselves as well as to the developing memorial to the events of April 14, 2013. An outdoor museum of sorts, centered around crosses dedicated to the three persons who died, is growing daily in Copley Square. Tisdale the curator raises questions about collecting, preserving, and maintaining all of the tangible (and intangible) evidence of this emergent phenomenon.  

In concluding her second post, Tisdale says,

Boston deserves a thoughtful, compelling, and flawlessly executed exhibition of this material on the one-year anniversary of the bombings—to help Bostonians process their emotions and memories and transform them into some sort of positive civic engagement for the city.

This is a remarkable statement.  If there is one consistent thread I have found in years of writing and thinking about exhibitions on difficult topics in the museum journal Exhibitionist ( see “The Unexhibitable: A Conversation,” Fall 2008)  and Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience,” Fall 2011), it is this:  It usually takes a very long time–often many years–for the affected community to come to grips with a searing and traumatic event in such a way as to embody it in a building or an exhibition. For example, museum colleagues in Colorado have struggled for years to create some kind of meaningful exhibition about Columbine. The 9/11 Museum in New York has yet to open.   If Boston can indeed complete such a task within a year it will be an important step, in my view, for museums everywhere. The reason is stated by Tisdale herself – it will help Bostonians (as well as all visitors, one would hope) to reflect, process, and heal in the direct aftermath. A museum or exhibition, with accompanying programs, that might actually emerge in such a timely fashion would be the best possible witness to the unique value of museums as public (physical and digital) spaces where communities can confront and remember difficult events in a safe, reflective, and communal manner–a true commons for Boston. 

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