City Archives preserves Boston Marathon memorial artifacts

Julie M. Cohen More Content Now
Archivist Marta Crilly holds a flag, signed by military personnel at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, which was sent to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. It is now part of the collection at the Boston City Archives in West Roxbury. Wicked Local staff photo/Kate Flock

Inconspicuously tucked down a winding road off of the VFW Parkway in West Roxbury, Mass., sits the Boston City Archives, home to centuries of artifacts, including material from the spontaneous memorial created after the Boston Marathon bombings last year.

A Herculean effort was made by several organizations to catalogue and preserve the letters, posters, flags, shirts, sneakers, teddy bears and other objects left at the marathon finish line or sent to the mayor’s office in the days and weeks after the attack. The items bear witness to the outpouring of grief and solidarity from around the state, country and world, and will be put on display at the McKim Exhibition Hall, located in the Central Library in Copley Square, in the exhibition called, "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial," opening April 7 at 11 a.m.

"This was history in the making," said archivist John McColgan, who was on the front lines of collecting the memorial items from Copley Square.

None of the pieces would have survived to be placed on view for the public without the efforts of the archives’ small staff of four and generous help from both the business and nonprofit communities.

"This is an exceptional project," said McColgan. He and his colleagues usually work with paper objects like records and maps, not sneakers, toys and angels left outside in the elements.

"All of us who worked with this collection – we had to steel ourselves," recalled McColgan, especially when they took down the four crosses created in honor of the three bombing victims and MIT Police Officer Sean Collier. "It was a great privilege for us … to take those crosses."

Local and international response

Motioning to a sampling of the items on view in the reading room, archivist Marta Crilly pointed out some of the almost 2,000 condolence letters and even telegrams sent to either then-Mayor Thomas Menino or simply to "The people of Boston" after the attacks.

"Please know that the city and people of Boston are in our thoughts, even over here in Kenya," read a letter from the International School of Kenya sent to the mayor’s office.

A large Irish flag spoke of the country’s link with the city and was inscribed with the words, "Belfast and Boston united. You are in our thoughts are prayers."

Letters arrived and posters were left from all over the U.S. from classrooms, church groups, police departments and many others.

"Rest in peace Officer Collier … we’ll take the watch from here," read a small, poignant, handmade poster signed Deputy Sheriff Darbyshire, El Paso County Sheriff Dept., Colorado Springs, CO.

Closer to home, students from Brighton’s Thomas A. Edison K8 School sent a poster decorated with colorful index cards with drawings and messages including, "Peace love courage."

In addition to the paper mementos, Crilly put out a row of colorful, worn out sneakers, a mere sampling of those left behind in Copley Square.

McColgan recalled running shoes were tied by their laces to police barriers at the memorial, "as if they were growing like vines."

Most paper artifacts are stored in the archives’ massive, temperature-controlled storage room, which rivals the cavernous warehouse seen at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

From one of the tall, metal shelves that rise to the ceiling, Crilly pulled out an olive green flag sent from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, to show solidarity with Boston residents.

While the archives are able to store flat and/or paper items, it was a challenge to find proper space for 3-D objects at the West Roxbury facility. Luckily, the staff received help from several organizations, all dedicated to preserving the memorial items for the future.

Working together

It became immediately apparent to the archives’ staff they would need to be creative in order to house the artifacts and find a way to preserve them. Fortunately, several corporate and nonprofit groups stepped in to help and volunteer their services.

"They became immediately involved," said McColgan.

Polygon Group, which provides property damage restoration and temporary humidity control, took the 3-D objects to their Georgetown facility in order to dry out items left in the elements in the company’s dehumidification chamber.

Polygon then took the artifacts to Historic New England’s collections storage and conservation facility in Haverhill. There they were placed in a "bubble" of carbon dioxide to kill any organisms living in the materials, said McColgan. There were four huge batches of memorial items, each taking a month to be processed, he said.

Iron Mountain, an international storage and data management company, is providing free help to house the collection in perpetuity.

"We were as affected by what happened on Marathon Monday as anybody," said Christian Potts, the senior manager for corporate communications at Iron Mountain.

Their headquarters has been in Boston for the last 30 years and many employees have run the marathon.

"Boston is our home," he said. "It’s a real honor and privilege" to help the archives, he added.

Iron Mountain reached out as part of their living legacy initiative, which offers charitable support for cultural and historical preservation. The artifacts will be stored in their Northborough facility and transported when needed for free.

The company is now storing 286 boxes of 3-D objects. According to Crilly, they include 134 boxes of shoes and 75 boxes of stuffed animals, to name a few. This does not include paper items at the Boston City Archives.

"That will be the permanent home of those items for as long as the city needs it," said Potts.

Marathon artifacts up close

The Boston Public Library exhibition, curated by Rainey Tisdale, has been organized by a partnership that includes the Boston City Archives, Boston Art Commission, New England Museum Association, Boston Public Library, and Iron Mountain, according to Mayor Marty Walsh’s office. The objects will be on display at the Central Library at 700 Boylston St., from April 7 through May 11.

According Walsh’s office, the "exhibition invites visitors to experience the profound emotions and solidarity evoked by the original memorial. Divided into three major sections, it transitions visitors from reflection to action and from memories of the tragedy to messages of hope and courage for the future as they move through the exhibition and out into their community."

But the exhibit is only one way to view the collection.

Crilly said anyone can make an appointment to visit the archives, located at 201 Rivermoor St., and staff will pull out a sampling of items to view.

"You can’t see it all at once," she said.

In addition, the Boston City Archives has been digitizing the artifacts. They are available to view at The site, called "Our Marathon," is the Boston Bombing Digital Archive and WBUR Oral History Project, hosted by Northeastern University.

In addition to examining the pieces online, the site offers visitors a place to share their own marathon stories at

For a video of archivist Martha Crilly discussing items from the collection, check back at or