In the wake of most tragedies, makeshift memorials fill up with flowers and teddy bears. After the Boston Marathon bombings last April, running shoes became potent symbols in the vast memorial there.
Now, after months in storage at the cavernous City Archives, a group of objects left at the site are in a new exhibition at the Boston Public Library.
Curator Rainey Tisdale walks along rows of towering, gray industrial shelving, passing dozens of acid-free file boxes labeled “origami cranes,” “bibs” and “flags.” She’s sifted through hundreds of memorial artifacts to prepare the new exhibition, “Dear Boston.”
“Each piece that was left there was a form of communication, human being to human being. The emotion is right there at the surface,” Tisdale says. “Perhaps the shoes were the most intense.”
Mourners left more than 600 pairs of running shoes. As Tisdale carefully studied each sneaker, she thought about the memorials that sprang up in other cities after horrific tragedies, like Sept. 11 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
“This is not the first makeshift memorial we’ve seen. This is becoming the way that Americans do this now,” Tisdale says. “But the shoes, they’re the thing that make this makeshift memorial different from the others, from other tragedies.”
Unlike something created in response to the marathon — a note, collage or piece of artwork — Tisdale says the running shoes already had deeply personal meanings before the race.
“They’ve got all sorts of wear marks on the soles from each runner’s tread. And there’s all the ways each runner has adapted the shoe so that they would get them through all those miles,” Tisdale says. “They have messages for the people they were running for, maybe they’re running for a cancer survivor. They have their little tags from their charity team.”
Tisdale says these identifiers embody the hope that runners feel as they start their 26.2-mile race.
“On top of that, you’ve got this other layer, which is about after the bombing and these runners needing to leave their own message at the memorial,” Tisdale says.
She picks up a box and takes out a pair of white running shoes with yellow trim. There are words written on the side of the outer sole.
“They say, ‘You have my heart. You are my home. Boston Strong,’ ” Tisdale reads.
She thought hard about how to display the running shoes. On one large platform, about 150 pairs are arranged in a giant square. Individual sneakers catch your eye for a moment, but then recede back into the group, the way a marathon runner sometimes does as part of the pack.