“Put people first. We care more about our survivors than educating tourists.”
Those words come from the website for the Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum (CCAPM), a group of survivors and victim’s family members who joined local activists to oppose the creation of the OnePULSE Foundation’s private museum project dedicated to the 49 people killed in the 2016 Orlando shooting massacre.
“We offer a different vision for a collective future that honors victims, survivors, family members (both chosen and by birth), and community members with dignity, integrity, and respect,” the statement continues. “We are critical of what’s been done in the name of love and the trauma that continues to be inflicted upon our communities as a direct result of the museum project.”
The group formed in late July, a month after the Orlando Sentinel published a detailed report about details behind the museum: $40 million for designs and construction, $150,000 for OnePULSE CEO Barbara Poma’s annual salary, and its status as a private operation.
According to the newspaper, several lawmakers have called for an independent audit on the OnePULSE foundation because of its lack of transparency. Poma had previously owned the nightclub, which opened in 2004 as a tribute to her brother, who died of AIDS-related illness. She and her husband are also battling a lawsuit on behalf of more than 65 survivors and relatives of the dead who allege that the couple failed to protect patrons against the gunman and then fraudulently transferred ownership of the club.
OnePULSE has proposed building a memorial at the nightclub’s location with a museum located several blocks away. The memorial would be free, but the museum would charge a small admission fee, according to the foundation. USA Today reports that the museum would be modeled after those memorial-museums built after the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Other memorials to the Pulse victims have already been built. A meditation labyrinth was installed in the Orlando neighborhood of Colonialtown in 2017. A year later, New York City built an installation devoted to those affected by the shooting by Hudson River.
“The museum will tell the story of the victims, the tragedy, the community’s response, and provide a world-class education center to learn from the lessons of hate so they aren’t repeated,” the foundation said in a statement. “Without a museum, there is no place to tell the story for future generations and we risk the tragedy being erased entirely over time.”
Rather, CCAPM takes issue with the foundation appropriating its money toward institution-building when families are still financially struggling in the aftermath of the 2016 shooting. The group opposes the museum as a form of “death tourism” that would capitalize on the massacre. Consequently, the organization is throwing its support behind Christine Leinonen’s Change.org petition, which argues for installing only a public memorial to honor the victims. Posted a month ago, the letter now has over 44,000 signatures — close to its 50,000 goal.
“I appeal to your humanity that ‘A Memorial’ should be a place of reverence and solace honoring those lives taken too soon so tragically,” Leinonen wrote in her original post. “Not a mockery, a place to gawk and line pockets. Not an Amusement Attraction.”
OnePULSE Foundation has attracted prominent public figures to its defense. The pop singer Lance Bass, the former NBA player Jason Collins, and the president of Walt Disney World. The foundation’s advisory board also includes leaders at the Matthew Shepherd Foundation, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.
Those last two institutions should be familiar with how divisive negotiations surrounding the construction of memorial-museums are.
In fact, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum almost derailed because of fierce opposition from victim’s family members. Originally planned as the International Freedom Center (IFC), the museum was supposed to incorporate the September 11 attacks into a broader exhibition about genocides and crimes against humanities. Some saw this contextualization as inappropriate. Debra Burlingame, whose brother died in the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon, led the charge against the proposed institution.
“The public will have come to see 9/11 but will be given a high-tech, multimedia tutorial about man’s inhumanity to man, from Native American genocide to the lynchings and cross-burnings of the Jim Crow South, from the Third Reich’s Final Solution to the Soviet gulags and beyond,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in 2005. “This is a history all should know and learn, but dispensing it over the ashes of Ground Zero is like creating a Museum of Tolerance over the sunken graves of the USS Arizona.”
The public feud only subsided when victim’s families upset with the IFC were pulled into the advisory board for the revived 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The Pulse Museum might have to take a similar route, incorporating its naysayers into the leadership.
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This article uses “Private Museum” in the headline, and “private museum project” and “private operation” in the body text. Could you please define what “private” means in this context? In other words, are there differences between “public” and “private” museums that are worth mentioning? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each governance structure? Would a private museum be better insulated from direct political pressure (such as immediate defunding by a change in government leadership), even if a desired transparency may not be achieved? Should it be noted that nonprofit organizations such as the Orlando Museum of Art or the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, are private and not public institutions?
The museum at the Oklahoma City National Memorial should be a cautionary example. I visited in 2002, about 18 months after the museum opened. I spent hours at the memorial and the museum and found no explication for why the awful tragedy happened. The museum presented the attack as inexplicable — a demented crime against innocent people.
In reality, the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building was a political act, carried out by a right-wing white racist. A fear of focusing attention on the terrorist undermined an obligation to historical truth. Perhaps the museum display has changed since then. In light of the current proliferation of the same brand of domestic terrorism in places like El Paso, San Diego and Pittsburgh, I certainly hope so.
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