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onePULSE, Many Perspectives: Collaborating with Diverse Stakeholders to Develop the National Pulse Memorial & Museum

Category: Mission & Institutional Planning
Rendering of a spherical building seen from across a highway
In the years since the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, the site has become an informal memorial to the lives lost. Now, it will become a permanent memorial and museum, following a long process of community consensus-building. Image credit: Coldefy & Associés with RDAI, Courtesy of onePULSE Foundation

In the aftermath of a tragedy, there is no one way for communities to grieve and heal. This is especially true when the event impacts people on a national or even international scale. The response, as well as any attempt at permanent memorialization, is multifaceted and dynamic, reflecting the complexity and humanity of every individual involved.

When it comes to constructing a permanent memorial and museum, this grieving process is further complicated by empirical matters like fundraising, philosophical concerns like the memorial and museum’s mission and vision, and even personal and political agendas as the stakeholder groups form—all on top of the intricacies of real estate development. This creates a delicate entanglement of stakeholder interests that organizers must listen to, sort through, and address if the project is to succeed.

For us, that project is the National Pulse Memorial & Museum, which interprets the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016 and memorializes all those affected by this event. At the time, the attack was the deadliest instance of gun violence by a lone gunman in modern American history and remains the deadliest incident of violence affecting LGBTQ+ people in the United States. It killed forty-nine people, injured sixty-eight more, and left countless others with severe emotional trauma. In the aftermath of the shooting, an organic desire arose in the community for a memorial, with thousands of people continuing to visit the site long after the initial outpouring of support, many of them leaving their own remembrances. It was clear that the onePULSE Foundation, the not-for-profit established by the owner of Pulse nightclub to honor and preserve the legacy of those killed, would be responsible for sacred ground, and needed to create a space to reflect and learn that would endure for generations.

We soon realized that a memorial alone was not enough to achieve that vision. We wanted to tell the full, detailed story of every victim of the shooting; provide historically accurate interpretation of the events of that night and its aftermath; share the response that came from people around the world; and contextualize the events within the macro issues of gun violence, hate, and terrorism our country still wrestles with. So, we decided the memorial also needed to include a museum, which would allow us to offer a place not only of memory and healing, but of learning and inspiration. Additionally, its programmatic activities could provide an essential revenue stream for ongoing operations, as we would learn from multiple memorials paired with museums across the United States.

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Our task evolved into creating a space that reflects the needs and values of both the current various stakeholders and the people who will visit it for decades to come. This raises some questions: How do you ensure your intentions are reflected in the final development? How might those intentions change and evolve over time? Those questions have much more complicated answers, many of which we are still pondering, even as development of the National Pulse Memorial & Museum moves forward.

With the guiding principle “we will not let hate win,” the onePULSE Foundation and its partners undertook this extraordinary project with an emphasis on having as many voices heard and reflected in the final development as possible. While it will take considerable time and immense effort, our goal is to create something bigger than all of us—a space to open hearts and minds and to educate all future visitors.

In the process, we have learned from our peers in both the museum and real estate development fields, engaged firsthand with community-building, and refined a process for gaining consensus that can be used for development projects large and small. Here is how that process works:

1. Identify all stakeholders

Since day one, the victims’ families, the survivors of the attack, and the first responders to the scene have been the guiding voices of what the National Pulse Memorial & Museum can and should be. As the people most directly affected by the shooting, their input and concerns are always at the forefront of our decisions—especially when they differ from other opinions and perspectives.

Like many other memorials and museums, we are also mindful of the needs and desires of the broader community, since the project will become part of the fabric of their neighborhood. As we have seen at other sites of violence around the country—like the corner where George Floyd was killed —crowds of supporters and mourners can disrupt community spaces in ways that aren’t always obvious. But the community too must have an understanding that once a tragedy occurs, the event cannot be undone. Overnight, what was once a private space—whether a school, a synagogue, or a nightclub—takes on national or even global importance, with the traffic and crowd management that comes along with it.  Communicating that change and ensuring all parties’ perspectives are heard and balanced in future developments is essential.

Our onePULSE community extends to several government and civic entities: the City of Orlando, Orange County, and the SoDo District where the former nightclub is located. The input and buy-in of these entities are essential to connecting the memorial and museum to the region and getting the necessary approvals to plan and develop the permanent site. Early engagement with these bodies helped bring broader awareness to our nonprofit and our cause, and it will also assist in limiting approval and development delays that can hinder real estate projects.

We also engage commercial stakeholders, such as Orlando Health, where most of those injured in the attack were treated. Orlando Health was a founding sponsor of the memorial and museum, a natural outgrowth of their experience as a vital part of the response to the tragedy. Their role is uniquely reflected in the memorial development, with plans for a survivor’s walk tracing the route many took the night of the shooting, connecting the memorial to the emergency department entrance and further bonding the project to the Orlando community and SoDo District.

Along with this extensive group of individuals and institutions who were physically and emotionally impacted by the shooting, we must also consider those who are aligned with our mission. This includes the broader LGBTQ+, Latinx, and Black communities—all of whom were prominently reflected among the victims and survivors—and gun control activists. These groups identify with our focus on education and on eradicating hate as we memorialize the tragedy and create a museum to generate something positive from the shooting and its aftermath.

It may sound like a lot to consider, but ours is not an unusually long stakeholder list. Particularly when attempting to memorialize an event like this, it’s important to think through the populations who may wish to offer perspective on the development. By identifying and engaging them early in the process, you can avoid setbacks and challenges that can be costly or unworkable as development advances.

2. Solicit input early and often

There is a saying in the design community: a camel is a horse designed by committee. It’s a warning against trying to accommodate too many opinions and styles and creating something without a clear vision.

When it comes to developing a memorial and museum site, however, you can’t trust the instincts of one person alone. You must acknowledge the voices of all stakeholders. Creating a well-conceived process for comments, review, and feedback will funnel these inputs into a system that makes identifying wants and concerns much easier. It will also help manage the voices of those opposed to the project who have the potential to impede rather than shape the final development.

A deliberate, official process also focuses the input as the project advances. When tasked with creating a multi-million-dollar development, it’s best to address concerns early, rather than wait until the project is advanced and changes would be associated with significantly higher costs.

That process for the National Pulse Memorial & Museum started with a task force of the most impacted stakeholders, who assisted in the development of an open, online survey that generated more than twenty-two hundred comments in the year after the shooting. These inputs helped the foundation shape our mission and core values and understand what the broader community wanted from the nightclub site, and have informed all subsequent plans.

We also hosted in-person forums to further refine the project goals and receive live feedback from the community. This direct approach helped us connect the project to the concerns of the neighborhood and others who will ultimately be affected by our decisions for years to come. Today, with the realities of COVID-19, current meetings are virtual, but the goal remains the same: to ensure our most important stakeholders are heard.

Finally, these diverse stakeholders were involved in the selection of an architecture and design partner. More than twenty-three hundred people weighed in on concepts from six shortlisted teams who were familiar with the process of memorial development and community-influenced architecture. This process provided stakeholders ownership while ensuring we were always moving toward a common goal.

While soliciting input is vital, information must also flow to stakeholders in a way that is most relevant and understandable to them. Research visits to renowned institutions, such as the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, the Flight 93 National Memorial, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, helped inform our approach to communicating project developments to our broad stakeholder group.  Project objectives and design can be highly abstract and hard to pinpoint, so viewing similar spaces that were already in operation helped solidify what our community might do—and avoid—in the development of our memorial and museum.

Our visit to Oklahoma was particularly impactful. Our colleagues there described what, in the past twenty-plus years, they have come to mean to their community. Their museum and memorial together serve as a place of remembrance and healing—a record of the terrorist attack—and fulfill the responsibility of educating our nation about this challenging past. We knew the addition of a museum to our project was a major opportunity to provide this same sort of impact, while also engendering inspiration for a better future.

Ultimately, no one institution can be all things to all people. There must be enough flexibility to adapt, with a solid foundation on which to build from and make decisions.

3. Build communication alongside construction progress

When managing any major development project, there will be unexpected setbacks and potential for delays. This is especially true when fundraising is an ongoing effort and the project owner is comprised of wide-ranging stakeholder groups. Planning a communication cadence, breaking issues immediately, addressing uncertainty, and continuing to ask for input are all critical steps to ongoing success.

Having a communication and decision-making framework in place can also keep all stakeholders aligned. With so many stakeholders providing input on the project, the foundation appointed a dedicated staff member to communicate effectively with those with a vested interest so that they may stay apprised of project updates, even once the project is complete.

It also means finding the win-win scenarios as the project advances. In development projects, private owners, citizen groups, commercial businesses, and government agencies may often find themselves at odds or with competing priorities. That reality doesn’t change simply because they are all invested in seeing a permanent memorial and museum erected. Having a partner like a project management firm that represents the owner’s interests, stays “above the fray,” and maintains objectivity can help everyone find a clear path forward. Their essential role is to create space that addresses the most pressing needs and concerns and finds creative solutions to any issues that arise.

4. Remember that flexibility is the secret to success

Flexibility is essential to anticipating new voices and issues—because they will arise. Evolving and new inputs are expected and welcome because we know they make the project stronger.

Our memorial and museum are being designed and built with flexibility in mind. As the site moves from concept to a fully constructed campus, we will have to provide for this flexibility while still adhering to strict schedules and budget goals. Communicating this as a priority is essential when fundraising; people want to know their dollars are being managed appropriately and effectively.

When the National Pulse Memorial & Museum opens, visitors and project stakeholders will have the opportunity to share additional feedback on exhibits both permanent and temporary, as well as the space in general, which will change how we think about and use different areas. Museums must be able to accommodate these evolving conversations, with plenty of adaptable space.

Bringing a project of this magnitude into the world is a delicate, dynamic, and important task. Memorializing victims, honoring survivors and first responders, and educating future generations about difficult history requires compassion, understanding, and the willingness to do the hard work of incorporating input from the many valued stakeholders who want this project to succeed.

By identifying and engaging these stakeholders, listening, keeping an open line of communication, and adapting to changing needs and demands, we can build a permanent site that is meaningful and will remain relevant for years to come.

Image credit: Coldefy & Associés with RDAI, Courtesy of onePULSE Foundation
Image credit: Coldefy & Associés with RDAI, Courtesy of onePULSE Foundation

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