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A year after Michigan State University shooting, museum has preserved memorial items


It's been one year since a gunman killed three students and wounded five at Michigan State University. In the immediate aftermath, students and others in the community left tributes like cards and bouquets. In the months since then, staff at the university's museum have worked to preserve and document what was left behind. Sophia Saliby of member station WKAR in East Lansing reports.

SOPHIA SALIBY, BYLINE: In the days after last year's shooting, spaces all around MSU's campus became makeshift memorials.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, that's the dog.

SALIBY: And thousands showed up when students came back to class, including people like community member Victoria VanHolder, who held a sign offering free hugs.

VICTORIA VANHOLDER: For me personally, I wanted to support the students and the younger generation 'cause I have empathy for what they're going through.

SALIBY: VanHolder stood right across from the university's Spartan Statue, a campus landmark. Flowers and candles and cards surrounded it. There was memorabilia left at other places, too, more than 1,500 unique items, says MSU Museum director Devon Akmon. And his team got to work collecting them so nothing would end up being destroyed by the elements.

DEVON AKMON: A lot of these materials were wet.

SALIBY: From stuffed animals to handmade crocheted hearts.

AKMON: It was winter. It was cold. So we had to do a lot of preliminary work and just drying out and stabilizing the materials.

SALIBY: Akmon says he's also been moved by the notes people left on campus.

AKMON: There are numbers of sealed letters which were very obviously private, and, you know, those have remained sealed to this day. We don't know what was expressed in those.

SALIBY: It's taken time to process it all, and Akmon says it's been intense work.

AKMON: We have to be really mindful that it's really difficult to work with this stuff, and we are Spartans. We're graduates. We are employees. We're part of this community, so this has taken a toll on us as well.

SALIBY: What to do with this type of memorabilia after tragedy has become more common after shootings on college campuses, from Kent State in 1970 to the University of Iowa in 1991 to last December's massacre at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Aaron Purcell is the director of special collections and university archives at Virginia Tech. The nation's most deadly college shooting occurred there in 2007, when 32 people were killed and more than 20 injured. Purcell says one of his first jobs at the university was moving the school's condolence collection into storage space. Now he often hears from other communities after mass shootings happen.

AARON PURCELL: Right around the holidays, I heard from my equivalent, a director archivist at UNLV, asking me these exact same questions. And then we heard from someone in Maine that they were trying to document what happened in Lewiston.

SALIBY: And Purcell says it's not only about documenting the trauma.

PURCELL: This collection is a real good way to remember that, the significance of the outpouring, not the event itself, but the outpouring and how this was like a cultural touchstone.

SALIBY: Mary Worrall, the head of collections at the MSU Museum, agrees, saying the materials they've gathered after the shooting in East Lansing have taken on greater meaning.

MARY WORRALL: For those of us who are drawn to museum work, a lot of that is because we really have a respect for the power that an object holds.

SALIBY: For now, MSU museum staff will continue to catalog, digitize and store the objects left to honor the victims of last year's shooting and the resolve of the Michigan State University community. For NPR News, I'm Sophia Saliby.


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Sophia Saliby
Sophia Saliby joined WKAR and ComArtSci in April 2020.