How the Orange County Regional History Center is helping preserve the memories from the Pulse shooting

By : Alma J. Hill
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It’s hard to wrap your mind around the Pulse massacre if you’ve lived in Orlando for any amount of time, but especially over the past year. On April 29, representatives from the Orange County Regional History Center – including executive director Michael Perkins and curator of exhibitions and collections Pamela Schwartz, among others – spoke to the difficulties of preserving the integrity and the heart of the tributes left outside of Pulse Orlando: the flowers, the candles, the messages and photographs.

If candles melted onto fabric, electric irons were employed to remove the wax. Dilapidated flowers, washed words, stuffed animals, so many pictures and flags and feelings had to be gathered to commemorate those who were killed in plain view, killed in a nightclub, killed for being LGBTQ or at least being friendly with those who were. It would be a delicate task of peeling photos from frames, flowers from vases and quilts from fences.

Taking care: Warehoused archives. (Photo courtesy Orange County Regional History Center)

History doesn’t come easily, but the Pulse massacre – which took 49 people from our lives and resigned them to the annals of history – was never going to be an easy task. On any given day, people still line the borders of Pulse on South Orange Avenue, many clasping at rosaries, some grasping at straws. This is now part of our history.

What is history? Is it old men in powdered wigs, banging gavels, debating the rights of marginalized people? Is it dry readings of wars fought and lost long ago? Is it Black and White dreams on a podium, a motel room in Memphis? Or could history be more part of the present? A Facebook post, chilling and concise? The battered wall of a safe space, exposing a community to the very real dangers of the world? In Central Florida terms, it teeters on the precipice of the two. Not an old city by most accounts – this former citrus town only lit the international stage when Walt Disney swooped in during America’s optimisticic mid-century to capitalize on its environmental comforts (and cheap land).

All of that has changed, of course, and the event that unfolded on June 12 at a gay bar near the city’s downtown only amplify that shift.

As we rapidly approach the one year mark of the Pulse shooting, the community of Orlando is coming to terms with the fact that this tragic event is now a permanent part of our local history and our own devastating contribution to the historical narrative of LGBTQ discrimination and persecution. As we take the time to remember what happened that fateful night, we acknowledge the small community of people who are charged with preserving the memory of the events, and the lessons learned that night.

The staff at the Orlando County Regional History Center has quietly and methodically been taking steps to ensure that the legacy of Pulse is honored and well preserved for future generations.

In the weeks following the tragedy, as the significance of the events settled in, the offices of Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Mayor Buddy Dyer, and the History Center, came together to discuss preservation efforts. Hundreds of people have flocked to the site and left memorabilia to honor those who had perished. Thousands of American flags, pinwheels and stuffed animals were left at the site, but the elements of Floridian climate quickly began taking their toll. The History Center had to decide very quickly to begin taking items into their archives for preservation.

“We started collecting a few weeks after to give the memorials a chance to live, but then we started to collect the items that were going to be decimated by the weather more quickly,” Perkins says.

Keepsakes were collected from three memorial sites: Pulse, The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and Orlando Regional Medical Center. Many of the items were handcrafted, or custom made. They were all one-of-a-kind, trapped in the pages of history.

Restoring a peace: Weathered items get museum treatment. (Photo courtesy Orange County Regional History Center)

Perkins stands over a table in the History Center’s private archives and explains what little is known about some of the items that had been collected. He details the careful cataloging efforts, using a rainbow sock monkey with the number 49 stitched upon it as an example. Next to it lay a pair of customized nylon angel wings. Elsewhere, other effluvia from families, friends and those traumatized from outside of the physical circumstances of the massacre wait for their historical treatment.

Some of the larger or more fragile items weren’t available to view, but curious minds may catch a glimpse of them at the temporary exhibit the History Center has planned for June 12, in their personal homage to Orlando United Day.

“There was a lady that left some prayer beads from the Vatican. This was at the Dr. Phillips Center. She was in hard economic times, but she wanted to leave something. So, she took something of meaning, from her home to the memorial site.” Perkins says.

Moving forward, the collection efforts will continue, as the mayors’ offices and the History Center decide exactly how and when to display the items.

For the time being, there is a small digital gallery available for public viewing at which is constantly updated as the history center staff receives more information about the items that were left to honor our fallen friends and neighbors.

As we look back on the events of last June – as we mourn, and process our collective grief – it is a small but significant comfort to know that because of the efforts of the History Center, among others, the 49 will never truly be forgotten. Their legacy and their memories will live on in the pages of history, and these items will forever reflect the community that came together to show the world that love will always win.

“When we say history we think about 100 years ago, 50 years ago, things that helped shaped the lives we live today.” Perkins says. “Sometimes history is not that cut and dry. Sometimes it’s more current and we have to think about the fact that part of our job is to collect the part of this history that’s happening now.”

Photos courtesy Orange County Regional History Center.

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