‘A tangible reflection of the community’s response’: Nearly nine months later, Boulder continues to preserve, document King Soopers shooting

Sheila Muniz, a longtime Table Mesa King Soopers employee, poses for University of Colorado Boulder professor Ross Taylor during a portrait project session at the Boulder Strong Resource Center on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Taylor is working on the photo project in conjunction with the Museum of Boulder to honor and document the people impacted by the King Soopers shooting in March. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Sheila Muniz, a longtime Table Mesa King Soopers employee, poses for University of Colorado Boulder professor Ross Taylor during a portrait project session at the Boulder Strong Resource Center on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Taylor is working on the photo project in conjunction with the Museum of Boulder to honor and document the people impacted by the King Soopers shooting in March. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
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Tears came somewhere between a deep breath and the camera’s flash.

Emotion is unavoidable when Sheila Muniz reflects on everything that’s happened in the nine months since a gunman opened fire on the south Boulder King Soopers where she’s worked for years.

While Muniz was not working March 22, when 10 people died in the shooting, her friends and coworkers were. She knew some of the people who died, and she knows some who survived and are only just beginning to process what happened.

From left, University of Colorado Boulder professor Ross Taylor sets up lights around Sheila Muniz, a longtime Table Mesa King Soopers employee, during a portrait project session at the Boulder Strong Resource Center on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Taylor is working on the photo project in conjunction with the Museum of Boulder to honor and document the people impacted by the King Soopers shooting in March. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

On an afternoon in late November, in the art therapy room of the Boulder Strong Resource Center on Baseline Road, Muniz posed for portraits, part of a project meant to document and honor those impacted by the mass shooting at the south Boulder community grocery store. It’s a collaboration between Ross Taylor, a University of Colorado Boulder professor and photographer, and the Museum of Boulder.

Participating in the project wasn’t easy for Muniz. As the emotions of the experience began to catch up with her, she stepped away from the camera for a moment to take a sip of water. Though the room was colorful, full of art and light from the waning winter sun, a heaviness filled the air. Despite this, the portrait project felt powerful and important to Muniz. She wanted to continue. Taylor picked up his camera.

In the aftermath of a tragic event, people strive to make sense of what often feels unthinkable. But in that quest for meaning, there is another simple truth: The King Soopers shooting is now part of Boulder’s history, and it’s important to document its continued impact.

“You just want to make sure people in the future have that information,” said Shaun Boyd, curator of archives with History Colorado.

After the shooting, teddy bears, balloons, flowers, handmade art and signs collected around the fence blocking off the grocery store property. It quickly became a makeshift memorial, and staff members at the Museum of Boulder recognized it would be part of their job to plan to preserve the artifacts left behind. They gathered volunteers to clean up the site, offering items to artists and throwing away artifacts that were damaged by water. The rest they sorted, cleaned and catalogued.

Months later, that work continues.

Curator of Collections Chelsea Pennington Hahn cleans and preserves a piece that was left at the makeshift memorial surrounding the site of the King Soopers shooting at the Museum of Boulder on Monday, Oct. 25 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

One morning in October, museum Curator of Collections Chelsea Pennington Hahn donned gloves, sorting and cleaning some of the artifacts that remain in storage at the museum.

Generally, the Museum of Boulder plans its exhibits well in advance, and Pennington Hahn knows what’s coming.

Generally, her work is relatively planned, but on March 22, her job changed drastically overnight.

As time goes on, the museum stays in regular contact with the victims’ families, Pennington Hahn said. Most are comforted to know the artwork honoring their loved ones is being taken care of and preserved.

While preserving history is vital, Pennington Hahn also views this as part of the benefit of the work she is doing. It allows people who are grieving the time and space to do so without having to make decisions about what items they may want to keep.

“It’s an ongoing process and ongoing relationship with the families and with the loved ones to figure out … the best way to honor their loss and their memory,” Pennington Hahn said.

The work could be a full-time job, but as curator of collections, Pennington Hahn has plenty of other responsibilities. She makes time for cleaning and cataloging items with the Boulder Strong Project as she can, and the Museum of Boulder is considering grants to assist with the work.

When Pennington Hahn led the effort to collect items from the makeshift memorial, she snapped into “work mode.” But she’d often find that flow interrupted as she encountered a particularly meaningful artifact. Art made by children and letters written by personal friends of those lost stand out for Pennington Hahn. .

It’s all been a learning experience for Pennington Hahn. While all of her work feels meaningful, it’s not every day she receives positive feedback from the community. She felt appreciated as she collected items from the memorial in the days and weeks after the shooting.

“You feel the impact of the work that you’re doing,” she said.

And despite the sadness of it all, Pennington Hahn found hope among the letters and pieces of art.

“It’s a tangible reflection of the community’s response to something that feels so hard to wrap your head around,” she said.

A set of metal rings, inscribed with the names and ages of the King Soopers shooting victims, collected from the makeshift memorial that surrounded the building, is seen at the Museum of Boulder on Monday, Oct. 25 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Colorado is no stranger to tragic events. Boyd worked for the Douglas County Libraries in 1999 when the Columbine High School shooting happened, and she now oversees that archive for History Colorado. More recently, she helped collect and organize letters to Gov. Jared Polis urging action after the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in 2019 after a violent encounter with the Aurora Police Department..

Aside from the emotional impact, there are other inherent challenges with the work, she said.

“It’s good to be there at the time so you can document what was there, because then you avoid the loss of material,” Boyd said. “But then you also don’t get the moment of contextualizing.”

Context comes with time, as does the true impact of an event on a community’s story, she noted.

There is no one standard way to document tragedy, but Boyd referenced a resource kit created by the Society of American Archivists Council. The guide offers templates, documents and processes that assist in collecting materials in the aftermath of tragic events within a community.

“The recurrence of both human-made tragedies and disasters of weather combined with the great speed of technological development lead archivists to a new role in society — as stewards of contemporary information,” the council notes in the introduction of its resource kit.

Similar to historians and archivists, journalists often have an innate drive to document and share stories. Taylor is no different. He visited the memorial in the week after the King Soopers shooting to take photographs, but left with the sense there was more he could do.

That’s when he came up with the idea for the portrait project.

“I … continue to believe in the power of shared story,” Taylor said. “As a community, when we identify and see not only ourselves but others in our community and a commonality, it can promote aspects of healing.”

Cindy Torres, a friend of Taylor’s who assisted with Muniz’s portrait session in November, agreed. She felt compelled to help Taylor with his project as a result.

“It was a significant event in our community,” Torres said, adding that she asked herself: “How do you try to find a way to be a part of it in a helpful way?”

In these portrait sessions, it is Taylor’s goal to make people feel comfortable. He encouraged Muniz to take deep breaths and helped guide her mind to a more peaceful place, one where she thought of her dogs.

For subjects who are open to it, Taylor is recording audio, another effort to collect and preserve the history of March 22 and its impact on Boulder.

As heavy as the work can be, those who do it recognize its importance.

“It’s an honor to be able to be a part of sharing and preserving that part of Boulder’s history,” Taylor said. “It’s really meaningful.”

Official plans have not yet been announced, but Taylor and the Museum of Boulder are working in conjunction on an exhibit that will open around the anniversary of the shooting. At the one-year mark, it’s less history and more an opportunity for memorial and reflection.

And for now, maybe that’s exactly what Boulder needs.