In the days after the Boston Marathon bombings, people flocked to the scene of the attacks and left behind thousands of items as tokens of grief and solidarity, converting Boylston Street and then Copley Square into an impromptu shrine.
Among the objects deposited was a green apron from a nearby Starbucks, covered with handwritten messages that showed people struggling to find an emotional path forward. “Forgive but never forget,” one message read. “Don’t let hate live in your heart. We are a strong and powerful city.”
The attacks on the marathon have become an indelible part of Boston history, and two permanent markers now stand at the blast sites. But that apron, and the other items that were once part of the temporary memorial, have, in fact, been largely forgotten — even though they’ve been preserved in perpetuity and are accessible to the general public.
A few weeks after the bombings, in June 2013, the temporary memorial was taken down. Since then, a huge swath of the objects that used to make up the memorial have been kept at the Boston City Archives in West Roxbury, a low-slung, nondescript building located near a Home Depot by Boston’s southwestern border.
Here, stored in the archives’ cavernous records room, you can find almost all of the temporary memorial’s so-called flat objects, including drawings, cards, notes, flags, race bibs, police patches and whiteboards that bear greetings and condolences from Boston and much further away. Other, more unwieldy objects, including most of the running shoes emblazoned with messages that came to define the memorial, are stored offsite but can also be retrieved for public viewing.
Recently, Marta Crilly, a city archivist, arrayed a selection of objects, including the Starbucks apron, in a small area for viewing by GBH News. She also discussed the emotional bond she and her colleagues have formed with the items over the years, and the drop-off she’s recently observed in public interest.
Taking down the memorial a decade ago “was quite a surreal experience for us,” Crilly recalled. “Because we’re certainly used to bringing records into the archives, but we’re usually working with records [for which] there’s been a distance of time. And these were records documenting a historical event that we had all lived through, that had just happened a couple of weeks earlier.”
Crilly said she’s still struck by the massive wave of sentiment these artifacts can convey a decade later.
“Something that always jumps out to me is just the sheer volume of people ... who were moved to write a message,” she said. “The outpouring of support and solidarity felt overwhelming to me, as someone who is a Bostonian — and overwhelming in a good way, in a way that we felt very supported. Always, still, I feel kind of taken aback by it.”
But Crilly and her colleagues have few occasions to access this material. In 2014, to mark the first anniversary of the attacks, the collection was used to create an exhibit at the Boston Public Library titled “Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial.” Pieces have also been shared with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and several other institutions. In 2020, an exhibit was planned at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum before COVID-19 derailed it.
Over the past decade, though, engagement by the general public has gone from limited to almost nonexistent. In that span, Crilly said, requests by the public to access the collection have dwindled from three to five annually to about one. The type of patron seeking access has shifted too, from what Crilly described as people with personal connections to the memorial to academic researchers.
There are several possible explanations. Geographically, Boston’s archives are off the beaten path, which could deter some would-be visitors. Many people may not even know the materials exist and can be easily accessed. Also, the items in West Roxbury can be viewed almost effortlessly at a digital archive maintained by Northeastern University — though those pixelated equivalents lack the evocative power of their physical counterparts.
But there’s another, deeper explanation at play, too.
A city’s journey with trauma and grief
In 2013, when then-Mayor Tom Menino announced that the temporary memorial in Copley Square would be removed, he implied that it had been part of an early, raw stage of communal grieving that Boston was ready to leave behind.
“It is my hope,” Menino wrote to survivors and victims’ families, “that the respectful closing of the temporary memorial will help us all look to the future.”
Menino’s words pointed to questions that transcend Boston. In recent decades, in the United States and elsewhere, temporary memorials have become a ubiquitous response to events in which lives are lost and communities are traumatized, including terrorist attacks, police killings and mass shootings.
"I'm not arguing that it's not valuable. But I am questioning this imperative that we seem to have to save and preserve."Erika Doss, Notre Dame professor
Erika Doss, a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has written on the topic. She says temporary memorials give the public a predictable, accessible way to engage tragedies that might otherwise seem intolerable. It’s a secular ritual, of sorts: participants bring physical offerings to the site of the trauma, scrutinize the objects left by others, take a picture or two, and watch as the memorial they helped create continues to grow. In the process, despair that might have been private and passive becomes public, communal and active.
“I find it fascinating,” Doss said. “[It’s] a big change from, let’s say, the 1950s — the postwar period — when there is a much more constricted sense of what your emotional expression should be in the public sphere.”
But then, time and again, the memorials come down. And at this point, Doss says, local officials face a huge challenge: As the use of temporary memorials has proliferated, so has a belief that the items they contained need to be preserved for posterity. It’s a belief she regards with skepticism.
“We’re talking about filling up museums, archives, and collecting agencies with stuff like paper, artificial flowers, teddy bears that don’t look too great — stuff that just takes up space,” Doss said. “I’m not arguing that it’s not valuable. But I am questioning this imperative that we seem to have to save and preserve.”
How do Bostonians feel about these items today?
Boston, however, has already made the choice to save and preserve. And while some of items in the archives may feel dispensable today — for example, mass-produced placards that pair a brand name with the phrase “Boston Strong” — others can still pack an emotional punch.
As I browsed through items left on Boylston Street in the bombings’ immediate aftermath, I was stopped cold by a note to Martin Richard, the youngest victim, from another child.
“You had a lot to live for, you had anything to do with your life,” Richard’s correspondent wrote. “Now, you’re up in Heaven with God who will watch over you little guy!”
Something about that piece — the childish script, the lurch from despair to optimism, the memory it triggered of Richard’s once-ubiquitous face — instantly made me feel like I was back in April 2013.
Do items with that kind of power deserve to be seen by more people? After visiting the archives, I spoke with Rainey Tisdale, who led the effort by local cultural institutions to mark the bombings’ first anniversary and curated the “Dear Boston” exhibit at the library.
When I asked if she thought bringing some of these materials back into the public eye would make sense in the future, she had a nuanced response. Displaying some of the items in a comparative context could be valuable, Tisdale said — for example, alongside similar memorials created elsewhere in the United States, or with different items that capture Bostonians’ response to other traumas. That approach, she said, could yield insights about “how, as humans, we grapple with the things that knock us sideways.”
But Tisdale also said resurfacing parts of the temporary memorial in isolation would have less meaning.
“If we go back to 2013, 2014 ... if you asked Bostonians then how they wanted to memorialize this event in the immediate aftermath, many of them would have told you, ‘We want the biggest memorial you’ve got,’” she said. “And similarly, many would have said, ‘We need this collection’” — the items from the temporary memorial — “‘to be on display where we can all see it easily, forever.’”
And yet, Tisdale added, “It’s natural for those feelings to fade with time. So here we are, 10 years later — and if you ask Bostonians what they need today, I expect many of them would tell you they’ve moved on. And that’s okay.”
"If you asked Bostonians then how they wanted to memorialize this event in the immediate aftermath, many of them would have told you, 'We want the biggest memorial you've got.'"Rainey Tisdale, “Dear Boston” curator
From that vantage point, the prospect of the temporary memorial abiding in the archives while being forgotten by the general public feels less like a problem to be solved than a victory, albeit a partial and painful one.
Crilly, the Boston city archivist, says that interest among academic researchers may continue growing in the decades to come. “In my experience,” she said, “it can take a couple of decades before people start writing their books, start writing their academic articles.”
In the meantime, she and her colleagues stand ready to assist anyone looking to activate their memories of a time that, for many of us, feels increasingly far away.
“They're public records,” Crilly said. “People are always welcome to come in. And we have a lot of open appointments.”