Archiving the Sacred: Navigating Public vs. Private in Virginia Tech’s Condolence Archive

There is something inherently reverent about archival work. The stacks are quiet and orderly. There is an order to the rows of shelves that mimic church pews. The atmosphere seems to invite contemplation.

The 2008 film Objects and Memory is an examination of objects and the collection and preservation of those objects following 9/11. The film shows the last column of the World Trade Center, which had become a repository for messages and memorabilia, taken down and moved from the site. As it was lowered to the ground, police and fire department buglers played “Taps.” Once on its side, it was covered in black fabric and a wreath laid on it. It looked like a coffin. The column was given a funeral, a military funeral.

University Archivist Tamara Kennelly oversees Virginia Tech’s Permanent Condolence Archive Developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings. Kennelly expressed the emotional toll she felt managing the archive. She cried in the archive every day for two years. Even now, approaching the 12-year anniversary of the incident, Kennelly still fights back tears as she describing  objects in the collection.

The reverence and ritual shown the column made me consider the possibility that the act of curation itself can be commemoration. An archivists’ tears are another way the act of curation becomes a ritual of commemoration.

Material Culture scholars Barbara Babcock and Bjornor Olsen would suggest the commemoration of curation becomes another voice in the multivocality of objects as they are recontextualized. A number of objects in Virginia Tech’s April 16 Condolence Archive are everyday objects that were repurposed as commemorative objects left at spontaneous shrines or sent to the university in mourning. In their repurposing, they take on plural or hybrid meanings. The process of curation is a new reading or interpretation that again creates more complex, patchworked meaning.

These everyday objects are compelling in how they demonstrate the immediacy of responses to the tragedy — people left messages through items they had at hand and used every day. The following three items are everyday items repurposed as commemorative objects. Moreover, they are nonverbal objects that have been written on to create print objects. Both aspects must be considered.

This $2 bill is inscribed with a message signed by Mark Putnam. It was left as part of a spontaneous shrine on the Virginia Tech campus and is part of the university’s Permanent Condolence Archive developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings.

This $2 bill is interesting because the inscription offers a provenance of meaning. It was once U.S. currency that became a good luck charm for a college freshman named Mark Putnam. It was then inscribed and repurposed as a commemorative as part of a spontaneous shrine.

The object was carried on Mark’s person over a number of years. The inscription states that there is “nowhere else in the world I would rather leave this” and “I am so proud to be a Hokie.” The statement suggests that the bill has become a symbol of his experience and time at Virginia Tech and he wants it to stay with the place it has become associated with. The inscription read, “I love all of you,” which could be a message for those who were killed in the shooting or for the grieving Virginia Tech community at large.

These goggles were left as part of a spontaneous shrine at Virginia Tech following the April 16, 2007, shooting. The are inscribed to “Mike,” presumably Michael Pohle, Jr. a senior majoring in biology, who was killed on April 16. These goggles are part of the university’s permanent Condolence Archive.

In “Performative Commemoratives: Spontaneous Shrines and Public Memorialization of Death,” Jack Santino states that all rituals are public, but they laying of spontaneous shrines bring the private into the realm of public ritual.

These goggles beautifully illustrate the interplay between public and private at a spontaneous shrine. They offer a private message to a victim of the shooting, Michael Pohle, Jr. a senior majoring in biology. Whereas the $2 bill more connects to the experience of the mourner, these goggles make observers feel a personal connection to the victim. He wore these or ones like them in class. They contextualize his role as a student and point to what type of classes he might have taken. They humanize the victim.

Words written on the goggles are now nearly illegible. You can make out “Rest in peace” and “You will be missed,” but the words are clearly written to the deceased. A private message shared publicly.

Roger Chartier, in “Texts Forms, and Interpretations,” stresses that the reading of a text creates meaning and that the interpretation of an object carries with it meaning from the historical setting in which it is interpreted. As the red ink has faded from these goggles, except for dots at the intersections of letters, it brings to mind another famous pair of eyewear often used as part of anti-gun discourse — John Lennon’s bloodstained glasses. This is an interpretation outside the realm of the commemorator’s intent, but it is a link modern readers are likely to make, especially as the image resurfaces on Twitter. In recent years after a mass shooting, Yoko Ono tweets an image of the glasses with a death count of the number of people killed by gun in the United States since John Lennon.

Because of the intimacy of the goggles in relation to the victim, the personal message, and the unintended similarity to a famous political object, this is one of the most political objects I examined in the collection.

These are commemorative handkerchiefs sent to Virginia Tech by Florida inmate Sean Cameron Comer. The handkerchief along with a letter and envelope are part of the university’s permanent Condolence Archive developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings.

These final objects are handkerchiefs repurposed into backdrops for a commemorative poem and drawing. These items were sent to Virginia Tech by Sean Cameron Comer, a then inmate in the Florida Department of Corrections. A letter accompanying these objects states that Sean felt close to every victim even though he did not know them. He goes on to write, “Love and kindness without any expectation rubs off onto others. And always returns in other ways when we need it.”

Like the $2, these handkerchiefs are personal in their connection to the commemorator rather than the victims. They are daily objects, and highly personal in their intended use. Unlike the intimate connection both the other objects had with Virginia Tech, these objects are removed.

They are, however, intriguing. Viewers who look at them are drawn in, invited to think about the inmate’s daily life. What kind of access did he have to news reports of the incident? The letter indicates he was given 7 years for an offense connected to alcohol and driving. Did he hurt someone while driving intoxicated that makes him feel remorse for the Virginia Tech victims? In many ways these objects (although they come with an letter explaining them) raise more questions than the other two objects examined here.

In this brief consideration, there is something to glean about the proximity of an object to individuals — proximity of daily use and proximity of emotional connection. This is a proximity that informs meaning during the recontextualization of objects, and it is present in the process of curation. As an archivist spends hours, days, months, and years in an archive, objects begin to have the familiarity of daily objects. There exists a kind of tension between the commonplace and the sacred as objects are handled over and over again with the formality and ritual of archives.


Objects and Memory. Film. Directed by Jonathan Fein and Brian Danitz, 2008.

Babcock, Barbara. “Artifact.” In Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments, edited by Richard Bauman, 204-216. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Chartier, Roger. “Texts, Forms, and Interpretations.” From On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language, and Practices, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, 81-89. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997

Olsen, Bjornar. 2006. “Scene from a Troubled Engagement: Post-structuralism and Material Culture Studies. In Handbook of Material Culture, ed. Christopher Tilley, et al., 85-103. Los Angeles: Sage.

Santino, Jack. 2006 “Performative Commemoratives: Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death.” In Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death, ed. Jack Santino, 5-15. Palgrave-Macmillan.

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