Flower garlands, flags, stuffed animals, a painted mural, and a pair of sneakers: these are just a few of the objects on the Surfside Wall of Hope, a temporary memorial to the victims of the Champlain Towers collapse on June 24. Rescue crews sifted through the building’s rubble for weeks as the death toll climbed to 98; the remaining portion of the condo was eventually demolished and the site cleared. The Wall of Hope, erected by friends and relatives along the fence of the nearby Surfside Tennis Center, remained for two months after the tragedy, a deeply intimate contrast to the haunting emptiness of the site where the structure once stood.
The makeshift memorial is now coming down, but one South Florida institution is committed to its preservation. Last week, eight archivists from HistoryMiami began documenting and cataloguing the hundreds of letters, artworks, and personal items, which will be stored at the museum for safekeeping. Among them is a 24-foot-long painting by the Dallas-based artist Roberto Márquez inspired by Picasso’s “Guernica.”
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“There’s talks of a permanent memorial going up eventually, so some of these items may be a part of that,” said Jorge Zamanillo, the museum’s executive director, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “But we know that collecting in the wake of tragedy plays a huge role in community healing, and that’s the most important thing for us — it’s not just about preserving the items, it’s also about closure and making sure we’re there to serve that role.”
Before this summer, the oceanfront town near Miami Beach rarely made national headlines, but the sudden collapse of the 136-unit Champlain Towers South left Surfside and the country reeling. Investigations into the catastrophe, including one by the New York Times, have uncovered serious structural issues in the building, saltwater intrusion, and a failure to make timely repairs.
Zamanillo says preserving the memorial is a way to remember and honor the victims and their families as well as capture a painful moment in the region’s history.
“We’re living in an era when mass trauma, natural and manmade, is occurring at an alarming rate,” Zamanillo said. “Museums have to be able to do this type of ‘rapid response’ collecting after an event, to preserve the history of a community.”
HistoryMiami, a Smithsonian affiliate located in the city’s downtown, is well-suited for the task. The museum has over two million photographs and digital images, more than 40,000 objects, and hundreds of cubic feet of archaeological material in its collection. In 2017, a group of artists were invited to curate an exhibition based on its extensive archives, which date back 10,000 years.
The institution has learned from experience the importance of preservation in the aftermath of disaster. When Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, HistoryMiami was not prioritizing collecting and documenting personal and memorial items in the same way, Zamanillo added.
“When we were planning an exhibition for the 25th anniversary [of the hurricane] a few years ago, we realized the missed opportunity,” he told Hyperallergic. “We went out to recover some of these items and interview people who were impacted by the storm. And we realized the show became a place of healing, where people came to look back at what they lived through and reflect on where they are today.”