Stories in Motion: The Story of Stuff

Earlier this year, in a photo essay about our president’s visit to Charleston, South Carolina, we shared images of some of the cards, artwork, and gifts that the city received from all over the world in the wake of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church. In a sense, the church had taken on the role of a museum, working to archive and preserve all of the items it received. It was—and, one year later, continues to be—a huge job.

“Spontaneous shrines” is the name of this phenomenon, and as you can imagine it’s a situation that comes up with alarming frequency.

Ashley Maynor, a former professor at Virginia Tech who is now a librarian at the University of Tennessee, has crafted an incredible interactive web documentary that tells the story behind items sent to Newton, Connecticut after the shooting at Sandy Hook School. Along the way, the narrative weaves in threads from other spontaneous shrines following tragedies at Virginia Tech and Texas A&M University.

Maynor, who herself survived the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, formed a bond with some of the people of Newton who had appointed themselves the archivists of the huge volume of items that poured into Newton from every corner of the world. She writes:

In just a matter of days after the Sandy Hook shootings, Newtown was inundated with donations and gifts.

The incoming packages would amount to more than 500,000 cards and letters, 9 semi-trucks of paper snowflakes, and 65,000 teddy bears—not to mention thousands of other donations or the half-mile long stretch of trees, votives, toys, and other condolences that lined the “Hook”—the strip of road that led from the local diners down to the Sandy Hook school entrance.

The typical emergency plans for small towns like Newtown don’t cover floods of teddy bears and donations, so with no official protocol or precedent for the amount of material coming in, it fell to individual citizens to respond and figure out what to do with all the stuff.

“The Story of the Stuff” is a multimedia web project that combines video, audio interviews, text, and photographs to tell the story of what happened to all those items in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. The innovative format is a marvel in itself—it’s a story that is as beautifully told as it is moving.

Maynor’s documentary has to be seen to be believed. Please join us in exploring The Story of the Stuff.

Stories in Motion is a regular feature in which ISC examines the fresh ways we see the power of storytelling at work in our world.