Keepers of Pulse history offer help to other communities reeling from mass shootings

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Since the killings at Pulse, archivists and curators with the Orange County Regional History Center have collected, catalogued and cared for thousands of touching memorials left in tribute to the Orlando night club, its patrons and the tragedy’s survivors and victims.

Among the gatherers, Pam Schwartz, chief curator in 2016 and now the History Center’s executive director, learned to preserve the emotional outpouring, an unusual expertise she has offered to those tasked with archiving grief from sites of the latest gun massacres — Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York; and St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Since 2016, after every single one, I’ve sent an email or some sort of a communication,” she said

Schwartz said she tries to lend a helping hand and an experienced voice, knowing the burden awaiting museum curators in those places scarred by gun violence.

“I just say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of your community, we’re thinking of you. If you need us, we’re here,’ ” she said. “Sometimes I’ll hear back the next minute, sometimes I might hear four months later, and some are like, ‘No, we are absolutely traumatized. We just we cannot do it.’ “

Cindy Sanford, registrar at the Clark County (Nevada) Museum, recalled seeing an email from Schwartz offering help a few days after a sniper, firing from a room on the 32nd floor of a hotel, killed 58 concert-goers at a country music festival Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas.

“Before her email, we hadn’t even thought about it. We were still sort of just reeling like everybody else,” Sanford said. “Her email was the first time that I really was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got a responsibility to do something about this.’ If it hadn’t been for Pam, we probably would have been blindsided within the next week or so when we were all of a sudden drawn into the process of preserving items.”

She said Schwartz provided them with guidelines and examples, urging them to prepare.

“Not only did she help us long-term, she made sure we were ready which, as you can imagine, was invaluable,” Sanford said.

She said Schwartz’s warning provided an immediate dividend as mourners began leaving notes, flowers and other memorials near the city’s iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” gateway sign. Without the alert, the tributes would likely have been tossed as trash.

In Orlando, History Center staff rescued 12,000 objects from the summer heat, rain and bugs in the weeks after June 12, 2016.

Most were gathered from three main sites: the nightclub’s entrance; the front lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and an area near the emergency room entrance of Orlando Regional Medical Center downtown, where many of the wounded and dying were treated.

“We didn’t have all the facts yet or understand it,” Schwartz said, recalling the first days after the attack. “We just knew that it was going to have a lasting impact on the community and most of our residents were going to be touched in some way by this.”

But Schwartz said History Center staff did not grab everything immediately, recognizing the memorial sites as places of healing.

The massacre, which occurred on “Latin Night” at the club on South Orange Avenue, was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history until the Vegas shooting. Pulse is still regarded as the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in the nation’s history.

Known as the One Orlando Collection, images of more than 6,500 pieces are searchable in an online History Center database.

The History Center, awarded the nation’s top honor for museums in 2019, is observing the sixth anniversary of Pulse with a special display of the 49 white wooden crosses made by an Illinois carpenter to honor each of those who died in the attack on the club.

The crosses originally appeared on a sidewalk near the Orlando Health emergency room entrance.

Families and friends of the victims personalized the crosses, covering them with messages and personal drawings. When they were moved a month later to the History Center, some family members helped carry them to a waiting truck, which received a police escort.