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  • Writer's pictureZachary Blair

The Orange County Regional History Center is playing games, but one of those needs to be catch up

Something that has stuck with me since the OnePULSE "symposium" was during Pamela Schwartz's defense of the Orange County Regional History Center's Pulse exhibits—when she said that the first exhibits surrounded the global response to the Pulse shooting (and did not focus on the victims) was because they had yet to collect information on the victims.

This session was on June 11, 2022, and was not recorded like other sessions.

As she was defending the theme of the exhibit she curated, Schwartz made a comment about how—ten years from now—our understanding of Pulse will change.

I responded out loud, "I hope so."

This is because our understanding of Pulse had already changed based on the public records we've obtained through individual records requests. From our organizing efforts amongst survivors, surviving family members of victims, and affected community members.

I offered her the public records we've collected so that her museum's perspective could also change to match the documented facts, rather than pay homage to a mythical gay nightclub that wasn't. The Pulse Nightclub was not a safe space, as it was riddled with code violations and unpermited renovations that hindered the escape and rescue of shooting victims. One of these, the unpermitted fence, was documented by the Orlando Sentinel.

No investigation or even an inspection of the building was ever done after the shooting. The City of Orlando actually called off a proposed inspection by Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes to document the existing code violations.

The reporting by the Orlando Sentinel alludes to other unpermitted work that was never inspected or brought into compliance.

"I already have them," she said.

She already had the records that I've requested from the City of Orlando, the Orange County Sherriff's Office, and a number of other responding-local law enforcement agencies? I doubted it.

And, if she did, why aren't they reflected in the exhibits she. has curated?

Her answer to that question was the same answer as to why she had not responded to my emails. She was too busy.

In the past 6 years since the mass shooting at Pulse, no one at the Orange County Regional History Center has had a chance to review the public records?

If museums have not had a chance to go through all of the documents and records to gain a comprehensive understanding of the event they are exhibiting, if they are pushing them to the side in order to tell a different story, perhaps they should not be in the business of doing exhibits.

But, the Orange County Regional History Center's exhibits are not designed to exhibit the truth. They are designed to "control the narrative" (which was the title of Pam Schwartz's talk) and to show the City, first responders, and Pulse Nightclub in the best light possible—even when this is contradicted by the facts.

Pamela Schwartz's acknowledged that she continues to knowingly ignore critical facts by putting documents aside for analysis at a later date—an analysis that we (who have more credentials and first-hand experience) have already done.

It is not that "our understanding" of Pulse will change 10 years from now, magically, as if new information will be mysteriously uncovered. No. Our collective understanding of Pulse has already changed. The Orange County Regional History Center has to play catch up with us.

We are fighting for the facts to be known and for our institutions and local governments to STOP teaming up with nonprofits to spread disinformation and a public narrative that lacks critical analysis.

The Orange County Regional History Center, under the leadership of Pamela Schwartz, has turned our tragedy into a marketing narrative for the OnePULSE Foundation (who signs Schwartz's checks - see link below) and the City of Orlando (whose employees are board members of the nonprofit that co-runs the History Center).

Items looted from our memorials have been turned into admission sales and accolades for an irresponsible curator that has not properly and comprehensively engaged with our affected community.

Of course the story of Pulse as told by owner Barbara Poma is easy and quick to get when you rely on Ms. Poma for your job curating Pulse exhibits and over $60,000.00 in extra income. But, is this the story that should be told? And, how does this narrative align with the documented facts?

Hint: It doesn't.

The Orange County Regional History Center's Pulse exhibit featured a large banner draped on a wall that quoted Barbara Poma's re-telling of how she saved Orlando's "seedy" gay scene by making the "family-friendly" Pulse Nightclub. One of her favorite quotes is, "Pulse was a place that you could bring your mother to." Between 2001 and 2016, Orlando had a number of beautiful gay bars—maybe only one or two that would be described by the gay community as "sketchy" or "trashy." Many gay bars in Orlando were bigger, better, and safer than Pulse. This quote reflects Barbara Poma's own internalized homophobia, antiquated stereotypes of gay bars and nightclubs (not reality), and part of an ongoing effort to reimagine the Pulse Nightclub as a rare gift bestowed upon the gay community by none other than Barbara Poma herself.

When institutions claim they worked directly with the community, that their programs are based on community feedback, or that their exhibits are based on community engagement, community collaboration, and community input—it's important to know who they are talking about. Who in the community? How many "community" members? What questions are being asked?

I understand that Pam Schwartz wants to be the "expert" on mass shooting exhibit curation, and feels a sense of self-made urgency to create museum exhibits for public consumption immediately after a mass shooting with no regard to the actual victims. However, to date, this work is truly a disservice to the public in that it does not actually educate the public AT ALL.

Rather, these "feel good" exhibits exploit grief to boost admission ticket sales, propel new careers (the "memorialization professional"), and reproduce marketing narratives that entice visitors who desire something to feel good about in the aftermath of a horrific tragedy.

It's one thing to not know information as events are unfolding or as a story is developing. It's another thing to ignore documents for 6 years, research conducted by credentialed community members for three years, and use museum exhibitions to promote false narratives that actually do harm to Pulse shooting victims fighting for the facts to be known.

In Boulder, Colorado—after Pamela Schwartz reached out to the Museum of Boulder the day after the shooting happened when survivors, victims' families, and the community were in total shock—$160,000.00 ended up being granted to a museum out of the Colorado Healing Fund's victims fund, rather than going directly to the victims (as was being solicited to the public).

The Museum of Boulder was never mentioned when the nonprofit was collecting donations for victims. The $160,000.00 grant to the museum also happened at a time when Boulder King Soopers victims were demanding transparency and that 100% of the donations collected for victims be given directly to victims to honor donor intent.

Mass shooting museums are a racket that do nothing to help victims or educate the public. What is truly being learned by looking at a screen-printed t-shirt, melted silk flowers, or a teddy bear that was left out in the elements? After being looted from temporary memorials and repurposed for the museum-goer's gaze, they become nothing more than ephemera to gawk at after admission is paid.

Photo of one of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting exhibits at the Orange County Regional History Center.

There are other, more ethical methods for historical preservation.



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