A snaking hose from a compact vacuum drooped from Emily Shafer’s shoulder as she moved its filtered nozzle inside a pair of worn, dirt-smudged running shoes.
“They’re just kind of gritty,” Shafer said above the soft, steady noise of the vacuum. “There’s plant debris; there’s sand. We’re just trying to get some of that off.”
This was not an ordinary cleaning job, and these were not ordinary shoes.
Like the other running gear lined up before Shafer, the shoes had been placed on Boylston Street and Copley Square nearly a year ago at a makeshift memorial for the Boston Marathon bombing victims.
Since the fall, a team of archivists, volunteers, and private donors has been painstakingly preserving the fragile artifacts of a city in mourning; cleaning the objects, drying and cataloging them, and even removing the spores and bugs that had grown on them or crawled inside.
On April 7, a sampling of the artifacts will go on display at the Boston Public Library as part of an exhibit about the way everyday people made simple but extraordinary statements about that day of terror and loss.
“It’s powerful, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s uplifting at the same time,” said Shafer, a 24-year-old volunteer for the project.
The shoes, 135 boxes of them, are among a colorful potpourri of items from the memorial that are being preserved for posterity by the city. There are T-shirts, posters, hats, flags, photos, stuffed animals, and more than 1,800 letters from people around the world.
“Dear Mayor of Boston,” reads one letter from Doireann Kinsella, an 11-year-old from Clarecastle, Ireland. “I hope the families who got affected by this recover soon, and I also hope there will be more marathons because when I’m older I would like to run in it.”
Boston understood its responsibility to preserve the artifacts from the start, said John McColgan, the director of the City Archives. “These are sacramental expressions of people’s support for the victims and survivors and the people of Boston,” McColgan said.
With the help of private businesses that have donated services and space, these often-handmade condolences will become part of Boston’s permanent, accessible legacy that the public can view through online images or by appointment at the City Archives.
“These objects are a big part of the grieving process and the healing process, but they’re also historically important,” said Marta Crilly, an archivist. “Our staff feels it’s a privilege to be taking care of this. What happened at the Marathon is part of our history, and what happened after the Marathon is also part of our history.”
The artifacts, which were removed from Copley Square from early May through late June, reflect the massive outpouring of caring and condolences that followed the bombings. Many of the shoes are inscribed with names on the sides or the soles, often by athletes who had run the Marathon.
There is a poster from the “Medical Tent RNs,” a group of nurses who tended the injured, that is signed with notes of sympathy and hope. “Live harder. Love stronger,” reads one message, signed by Jenn C.
And there is a pair of running shoes that held a ceramic ladybug.
“This is my way of giving back,” said Tiffany Locke, another volunteer who helped clean the running shoes. “It’s an opportunity to be on this path of Boston moving forward.”
The project is a different kind of challenge for the archives, which is a repository for paper records such as tax assessments and municipal documents, primarily since Boston was incorporated as a city in 1822. The climate-controlled building near the Charles River in West Roxbury also holds a smaller collection of older history dating from the 1600s.
So, city archivists wondered, what’s to be done with a 4-foot teddy bear?
“Usually, our records aren’t sitting outside in the elements, and we also don’t typically have a lot of artifacts,” Crilly said. “Another challenge is documenting history that you experience, which is not something we typically do.”
The project quickly received offers of support from the private sector. Staffers at Polygon dried out many three-dimensional objects such as stuffed animals and T-shirts in a so-called dessication chamber at its Georgetown facility, Crilly said. From there, the objects were shipped to Historic New England's research and storage facility in Haverhill, where they were placed inside a bubble of carbon dioxide to be fumigated.
Some of those artifacts, Crilly said, had become home for living organisms during their time in the outdoors.
Iron Mountain, which specializes in secure storage, pitched in to offer free space for the artifacts in its Northborough facility — for all time.
“As we saw the memorial growing in Copley Square, we just knew that this was something that we could help with,” said Samantha Joseph, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Iron Mountain. “This is really personal for Iron Mountain. Boston is our home and the company headquarters and has been for a long time.”
Iron Mountain is also digitizing the condolence letters that were mailed from around the world to the mayor’s office or simply to “the people of Boston.” Joseph said the company is working quickly to have a sample of the letters online by the first anniversary of the bombings.
The online archive of correspondence, to be maintained in collaboration with Northeastern University, will be available at northeastern.edu/marathon/bca.
All the actual letters will be held at the City Archives, where Crilly walked in a climate-controlled room where dozens of boxes and folders holding thousands of paper artifacts have been cataloged and filed. Soon, some of these artifacts will be transported temporarily to the McKim Building of the main public library, located across Boylston Street from the bombing site.
Rainey Tisdale, curator of the exhibit that will run to May 11, said she has chosen several hundred items as part of a progressive narrative that moves past the explosions and toward the future.
“These objects are so laden with emotion, it’s almost overwhelming,” said Tisdale, who teaches graduate museum studies at Tufts University. “I had to put aside my own emotion as much as possible in order to see them as a curator. That was a very intense process.”
Conversely, she said, “the easy part was they spoke for themselves. They are human communication that happens to be in material form.”
Now, in a city that passionately values its history, the artifacts will be available for generations to come with messages, sometimes scribbled but always heartfelt, about sorrow, and strength, and hope.Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.