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5 years after Pulse, new Orlando exhibit shows community response

The displays include articles left at memorials, photographs capturing worldwide reaction, oral histories and details of the shootings.
Artwork and signatures cover a fence around the Pulse nightclub in the months after a gunman there killed 49 people. A new exhibit that opened Saturday in Orlando showcases the response to the June 2016 massacre.
Artwork and signatures cover a fence around the Pulse nightclub in the months after a gunman there killed 49 people. A new exhibit that opened Saturday in Orlando showcases the response to the June 2016 massacre.
Published May 30
Updated May 30

ORLANDO — A new exhibit showcases the response — locally and globally — to the Pulse nightclub shootings. “Community: Five Years After the Pulse Tragedy” opened to the public Saturday at the Orange County Regional History Center in downtown Orlando.

The displays, located on the third floor of the museum, include articles left at memorials, photographs capturing worldwide reaction, oral histories and details of the shootings. It begins with a look at the club before the events of June 12, 2016, and ends with portraits of the 49 victims.

The first area of the exhibition covers the beginnings of the club, which opened in 2004, and its development.

“People who never went to Pulse don’t understand what Pulse was to the people who went there,” Pam Schwartz, executive director of the history center, said during a walk-through of the exhibit as it was being completed this week. “I think this video is what’s really going to evoke that for people. They’ll really understand what people are talking about how like, ‘This wasn’t the job for me. It wasn’t a club, it was home.’”

That section also includes the all-white piano that stood in the white room of Pulse’s original layout and posters for the eventual themed nights at the club, such as Latin night and college night. Another poster touts what would have been the 12th anniversary party for Pulse, a performance by hip-hop artists Ying Yang Twins scheduled for July 2016.

“This is where we thought about the ‘community’ as sort of very specific and then rippling out. The people who were there had their own memories. And then, of course, the LGBTQ tie where that is often referred to as community,” said Jeremy Hileman, co-curator of the exhibit and One Orlando registrar for the history center.

In the area devoted to memorials, items left by participants are organized by the location where they were left, whether that was the club site on South Orange Avenue, the vigil at Lake Eola, memorial service at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts or outside Orlando Health, just north of the shooting site.

The displays are bright; the items often feature rainbows. There are flags, flowers, leis, signs with slogans (“Love for all, hatred for none”), stuffed animals, children’s artwork and unexpected things, such as a painted ukulele. There’s a sketch of Mickey Mouse with a rainbow flag.

Organizers aimed for a broad range inside the displays, Hileman said.

“Some people are talking about gun control or civil-rights issues versus the children drawing pictures. … just kind of painting the whole picture,” he said.

Permanent memorials are incorporated. There’s a replica of the Universal Studios theme park window that’s a tribute to resort workers killed.

A section on national and international reaction is topped by a long rainbow banner with the words “Gays Against Guns.” A screen will show points from around the globe that responded to the shootings.

“We’re talking about a relatively small group of people who worked or regularly came into a nightclub, to where now there’s people and countries all over the world that sort of connect to that story,” Hileman said.

One section is set aside in a way designed to make it easy to avoid. The somber area, situated after the nightclub section, is known simply as “June 12, 2016.”

“We’ll have text panels talking about what it was … some different quotes and things,” Schwartz said. “In previous years, we haven’t done much interpretation of the actual event. It was still unfolding for a couple of years.”

The section includes other news, including the shooting death of singer Christina Grimmie, which happened two days before the Pulse shootings, and the alligator attack and subsequent death of 2-year-old Lane Grave near Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian resort, which occurred two days after Pulse. But the area is not gory or sensational.

“I work very closely with the survivors, families and stakeholders, and it has become very apparent that at the fifth year, they don’t ever want to see this story again,” Schwartz said. “So, we put it in a space specifically so those who want to can bypass.”

The 49 victims are memorialized at the end of the exhibit with a large heart-shaped graphic that includes their photographs and names.

The pictures are arranged to keep “all of our couples and friends groups together; that’s something that’s very important to us,” Schwartz said.

“We always want to honor them. We want to make sure that there is some place that the families and the friends or people who love them can see and be and sort of feel, right?” she said.

“Community: Five Years After the Pulse Tragedy” remains on display daily through Aug. 15. Free admission will be offered June 5-13, and the 49 white memorial crosses will be available for viewing June 11-13.

- Dewayne Bevil, Orlando Sentinel