Exhibiting in the Wake of Tragedy: an Isla Vista Remembrance

By Julia Larson

Putting together exhibits of archival and library material can be fun and a good learning experience for all involved. But what if the topic of the exhibit is tragedy? How do you exhibit materials that affected every member of a campus community? What can you do as staff and faculty to help those who have been affected the most, the students? By working with students, and letting them have a voice in choosing materials and designing some of the exhibition rooms, we tried to create a space for healing and promote compassion.

On May 23, 2014, a young man killed six University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) students and injured 14 others. In the wake of the tragedy, spontaneous memorials sprung up in the seaside college town of Isla Vista, where the rampage took place. A UCSB graduate student, Melissa Barthelemy, was approached by undergraduates who asked her to find a way to save the items so that they would not be discarded. She began taking care of the materials in situ (sleeving paper cards, working with the property managers on removal of dead flowers, leaving notebooks for students and community members to write their thoughts and prayers). Barthelemy, a graduate student in history, then began working with librarians Rebecca Metzger and Annie Platoff to form a committee to deal with the memorial items and work with the Library’s Special Research Collections Department to collect and archive the materials. Their Ad hoc Memorial Preservation Committee worked closely with the university administration and Student Affairs Division, as well as the History Department and property owners to collect and preserve cards, letters, candles, and other ephemera. Barthelemy became the project manager for the entire project, and Platoff was the curator of the collection. They worked with the Public History Department to have undergraduate student interns earn credits to organize and scan hundreds of cards and notes during the fall 2014 quarter. By winter quarter 2015, a plan to exhibit the materials for the one-year anniversary had been decided upon and a history class was offered as an opportunity for students to get hands-on experience handling archive and exhibition materials. The problem was location.

In 2015, the UCSB Library was nearing the final stretch of a 3 year, $80 million renovation and addition, and space was tight in the portions of the library that were not under construction. With so many students affected by the tragedy, the normal library exhibit spaces would not work. The committee did not want students who see the library as a safe and quiet space to study to encounter materials from the tragedy in a hallway exhibit or in the normal Special Collections exhibit areas. The library needed a space that was on campus, public enough to encourage visitation, but private enough for students and family members to visit and grieve in peace. The only space that fit the criteria was overflow office space, where a few library departments had moved temporarily during construction. It was a World War II-era gymnasium building, a holdover from when UCSB was a Marine Air Base, halfway between the History Department and the library, near the center of campus. It consisted of nearly 9000 square feet of office space, with a maze of windowless rooms, a mix of large rooms with long blank walls and smaller rooms, perfect for the university counselors to talk to visitors privately, if needed. The only catch was that library staff were not moving out of their offices until April 30, and the exhibit was to open on May 20, just in time for the one-year anniversary memorial.

A history class, taught by Professors Ann Plane and Randy Bergstrom, divided students up into two main groups: students working on the exhibit, and students working on processing the collection for the archive. Annie Platoff supervised the students processing the items (close to 50 cubic feet, and a couple thousand items) into the collection so that they could be put on display in the exhibit. Melissa Barthelemy supervised the students in the exhibit planning, design, and construction. She recruited me (since I am her spouse) to be the Exhibit Installation Coordinator and work with the students on the layout and construction of the exhibit, since I had worked at a number of museums in the past, though at the time I was working at the UCSB Library. Since this was in addition to my full-time job, I worked with a group of students and volunteers every evening from 7 p.m. until midnight most days during May to construct the exhibit, entitled We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista.

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We Remember Them room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy UCSB Library.

Many in-kind donations of time and resources flowed in—the UCSB Art Museum donated the use of 16 exhibit cases, the Library donated the use of a large video monitor to display the digital images of the memorial sites, Facilities donated their custodial services staff to clean the exhibit space, Associated Students donated materials to be put on display, Office of Student Life organized volunteers to help staff the exhibit, and Counseling Services brought in counselors for emotional support. And even the students in the class brought their friends and partners along to help with the exhibit installation. A student in the class who was an art major created the image for the publicity materials, a recent graduate who had taken many photos of the spontaneous memorial sites became the project photographer, a graduate student in psychology became the exhibit supervisor, and a few students worked both on processing the collection and installing the exhibit—this gave them the opportunity to pick out the items that would work best for each exhibit case.

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Floor plan of exhibition rooms with suggested path. Image courtesy of Melissa Barthelemy.

The exhibit space was defined as seven interconnected rooms, with auxiliary space left over for a volunteer kitchen, office, exhibit prep room, and two small rooms designated as ‘counseling rooms’ for the counseling staff to use. Long hallways extended around the center rooms, which provided space for the large chalkboards from a spontaneous memorial site (with messages written by community members and sealed for preservation), and new cork boards for visitors to hang notes and messages on. The first portion of the exhibit honored the lives of the victims, and contained biographies approved by their family members. An exhibit case showed items left at the memorial sites that had specific messages for each victim. The next two rooms showed the outpouring of support and condolence materials from the sites of spontaneous memorials. Exhibit cases highlighted each of the spontaneous memorial sites at four of the sites of violence, with cards, mementos, origami cranes, candles, and graduation leis. Photos of the memorial service held in the UCSB stadium which was attended by 23,000 people, a photo panorama of the paddle out (1000 surfers on a calm ocean), the memorial candlelight vigil, and a video message of condolence from Vice President Joseph Biden filled the next rooms. One room also highlighted how those affected had channeled their energy into gun reform, mental health awareness, and a feminist response to violence.  Two more rooms showed how the community has come together, with a Memorial Garden, scholarships in the name of each victim, messages of support for the first responders, and a space for visitors to write their own thoughts in comment books. We chose digital photographs from student photographers, local and university newspapers, and a few images from international news sources for display in the exhibit. A local printing business worked a few late nights as we sent them high resolution images for them to print onto 16×20 foam core, with another piece of foam core attached to the back, so that all we had to do was put nail into the wall and hang the photos from the strip of foam. Another local frame shop devised plexi-glass holders for some of the cards and hand-colored paper hearts from local school children, which allowed for quick, easy, and cost-effective display. The fragile and simple display of materials in frameless plexi emphasized the spontaneous nature of the materials on display. As a flexible overflow space, most of the walls were fairly sturdy drywall, however others were plastic, and still others were cubicle walls that hid various electrical or plumbing features in certain rooms. Two rooms had very old track lighting, but most were the standard office fluorescent lights; some rooms had standard office carpet, but two other rooms and the hallways had the bare, original 1942 basketball floor.

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Come Together/ Continuing events room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy UCSB Library.

A room apart from the main flow of the exhibit was the Reflection Room—it was largely designed by the students and featured comfortable couches, mood lighting, colorful posters, and was designed as a place for them to ‘chill’ and relax. It became the place where families and friends of the victims could sit and talk and grieve together. In total, there was about 6000 square feet of exhibition space, spanning nine rooms. Since the exhibit was dependent upon students and volunteers for staffing, we planned to be open only five hours each day for four weeks, ending just after graduation in late June. After faculty, students with their parents, staff, and even the Chancellor visited the exhibit over graduation weekend, the exhibit was extended another six weeks. In total, over 1800 visitors came through the exhibit, some only once, and some returned multiple times.

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Reflection Room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy of UCSB Library.

There are a few takeaways from this experience. Not all communities grieve in the same way after events like this. While the tragedy did not take place on campus, it was just two blocks away – in the center of the Isla Vista community, where the students go to hang out, eat, work, and where most of them live, in one of the most densely populated unincorporated areas in the western U.S. The students working on the exhibit wanted to reclaim that seaside town through the Reflection Room, they needed to remind themselves of the Isla Vista before the tragedy. And the staff and faculty needed to remind themselves that we are all one community, both town and gown. The effort to get all of the various departments and units to work together and contribute to this exhibit is not to be underestimated; bureaucracy does not disappear, but can sometimes be ignored if necessary.  In the end, the success of the exhibit was not based on numbers of visitors, or length of time it was open. But it was in the ability of the students to come together and create something out of tragedy, to find ways to grieve collectively, and heal as a community.


Julia Larson is the Reference Archivist for the Architecture and Design Collection at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2015, she was working at the UCSB Library when she was asked to be the Exhibit Installation Coordinator for the We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista memorial exhibit. She is currently working on an upcoming exhibit, UCSB Campus Architecture: Design and Social Change, which opens in January 2018.

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