Tears came somewhere between a deep breath and the camera flash.
Emotion is inevitable as Sheila Muniz reflects on all that has happened in the nine months since a gunman opened fire on southern Boulder King Soopers where she has worked for years.
While Muniz was not working on March 22, when 10 people died in the shooting, his friends and colleagues were. She knew some of the people who died, and she knows some who survived and are just starting to figure out what happened.
One late November afternoon, in the art therapy room of the Boulder Strong Resource Center on Baseline Road, Muniz posed for portraits, as part of a project to document and honor those affected by the disease. mass shooting at the South Boulder community grocery store. It is a collaboration between Ross Taylor, professor and photographer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the Museum of Boulder.
Participating in the project was not easy for Muniz. As the emotions of the experience started to catch up with her, she pulled away from the camera for a moment to take a sip of water. Although the room was colorful, full of art and the light of the fading winter sun, a heaviness filled the air. Despite this, the portrait project felt powerful and important to Muniz. She wanted to continue. Taylor took her camera.
In the aftermath of a tragic event, people struggle to make sense of what often seems unthinkable. But in this quest for meaning, there’s another simple truth: The King Soopers shooting is now part of Boulder’s history, and it’s important to document its continued impact.
“You just want to make sure people in the future have this information,” said Shaun Boyd, records curator with History Colorado.
After the shooting, teddy bears, balloons, flowers, handmade artwork and signs gathered around the fence blocking grocery store property. It quickly became a makeshift memorial, and Museum of Boulder staff recognized that it would be part of their job to plan for the preservation of artefacts left behind. They gathered volunteers to clean up the site, donating items to artists and throwing out water-damaged artifacts. The rest they sorted, cleaned and cataloged.
Months later, this work continues.
One morning in October, the museum’s collections curator, Chelsea Pennington Hahn, put on gloves, sorting and cleaning some of the artifacts that remain in the museum’s storage.
Usually, the Museum of Boulder plans its exhibits well in advance, and Pennington Hahn knows what’s coming.
Usually her job is relatively planned, but on March 22 her job changed dramatically overnight.
Over time, the museum remains in regular contact with the families of the victims, said Pennington Hahn. Most take comfort in knowing that works of art honoring loved ones are taken care of and preserved.
While preserving history is vital, Pennington Hahn also sees this as part of the perks of the work she does. It allows mourners the time and space to do so without having to make decisions about what items they want to keep.
“It’s an ongoing process and an ongoing relationship with families and loved ones to find… the best way to honor their loss and their memory,” said Pennington Hahn.
The job could be a full time job, but as curator of the collections Pennington Hahn has many other responsibilities. She takes the time to clean up and catalog the objects with the Boulder Strong Project as much as she can, and the Museum of Boulder is considering grants to help her with the work.
When Pennington Hahn led the effort to collect items from the makeshift memorial, she went into “work mode.” But she often found this flow interrupted when she encountered a particularly significant artifact. Art by children and letters written by personal friends of those who are lost stand out for Pennington Hahn. .
It was all a learning experience for Pennington Hahn. While all of her work seems meaningful, it’s not every day that she receives positive feedback from the community. She felt appreciated when she recovered items from the memorial in the days and weeks following the shooting.
“You feel the impact of the work you do,” she said.
And despite the sadness of it all, Pennington Hahn found hope among letters and works of art.
“It’s a tangible reflection of the community’s response to something that seems so difficult to understand,” she said.
Colorado is no stranger to tragic events. Boyd worked for the Douglas County Libraries in 1999 when the Columbine High School shooting took place, and she now oversees those archives for History Colorado. Most recently, she helped collect and organize letters to Governor Jared Polis urging action on the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died in 2019 after a violent encounter with the Police Department of Aurora.
Besides the emotional impact, there are other challenges inherent in the job, she said.
“It’s good to be there at that time so you can document what was there, because that way you avoid the loss of material,” Boyd said. “But then you don’t have time to contextualize either.”
Context comes with time, as does the true impact of an event on a community’s history, she noted.
There is no standard way to document a tragedy, but Boyd referred to a resource kit created by the Society of American Archivists Council. The guide offers templates, documents and processes that help collect documents following tragic events in a community.
“The recurrence of both man-made tragedies and meteorological disasters combined with the high speed of technological development is leading archivists to a new role in society – as custodians of contemporary information,” the council notes in the introduction of its resource kit.
Much like historians and archivists, journalists often have an innate desire to document and share stories. Taylor is no different. He visited the memorial within a week of the King Soopers shooting to take photos, but left feeling he could do more.
It was then that he had the idea for the portrait project.
“I… continue to believe in the power of shared history,” Taylor said. “As a community, when we identify with and see not only ourselves but also others in our community and commonality, it can promote aspects of healing. “
Cindy Torres, a friend of Taylor’s who attended the Muniz portrait shoot in November, agreed. As a result, she felt obligated to help Taylor with her project.
“It was an important event in our community,” Torres said, adding that she had wondered, “How do you try to find a way to be a part of it in a meaningful way?”
In these portrait shoots, Taylor’s goal is to put people at ease. He encouraged Muniz to take a deep breath and helped guide her mind to a more peaceful place, a place where she thought of her dogs.
For topics open to it, Taylor is recording audio, another effort to collect and preserve the March 22 story and its impact on Boulder.
As heavy as the work can be, those who do it recognize its importance.
“It is an honor to be able to participate in sharing and preserving this part of Boulder’s history,” said Taylor. “It’s really meaningful.”
Official plans have yet to be announced, but Taylor and the Museum of Boulder are working together on an exhibit that will open around the anniversary of the shooting. At the end of a year, it is less history and more an occasion for memorial and reflection.
And for now, that may be exactly what Boulder needs.