17 Days: 'Dear Boston' exhibit set to open

"Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" will be on display April 7 to May 11 at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. Boston Public Library

In the 26 days leading up to the Boston Marathon on April 21, ESPNBoston.com will share inspiring stories, detail important logistics and go inside the planning for what promises to be an event like no other in the wake of last year's bombings. There are 17 days until the race.

The messages started pouring in before the metal barriers and yellow ribbons of police tape even came down. They came in different forms -- on poster board and written on runners' bibs, on paper and scrawled on T-shirts -- and in different languages.

They were addressed to those who lost their lives in the bombings on Boylston Street, near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Or to the more than 260 people injured. Or to the first responders, those who risked their own safety to help save the lives of strangers.

Or to the people of Boston in general.

They were messages of sorrow and of support, of thanks and of hope. But in one way or another, at the core the messages were all the same.

They were examples of people reaching out to other people, often complete strangers, to tell them they were not alone in a time of need.

When the crime scene was cleared and the barriers came down, the memorial shifted to Copley Square, where it grew and grew. Eventually there were thousands of items, including wooden crosses for each of those killed, stuffed animals, finishers' medals, flags, flowers and hundreds of pairs of running shoes.

A selection of those items will be on display in "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial," an exhibition set to open at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square on April 7 and run through May 11.

"When you were out there at Copley Square, there were so many things it was hard to get a sense of their true meaning," curator Rainey Tisdale said. "You could get a sense of the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. ... You might be able to hone in on a few pieces to look at carefully, but there were just too many pieces there so it was hard to get deeper than that."

An independent museum curator, Tisdale has spent the better part of the past year trying to come to grips with the tragedy at last year's marathon. The longtime Boston resident who specializes in urban history and city museums -- which focus on telling the stories of the cities in which they reside -- knew the event would be a tough one for Bostonians to make sense of.

So she and the staff of four at the Boston City Archives, which was tasked with taking down the makeshift memorial in June, preserving and archiving the items for posterity, have spent months going through the thousands of items piece by piece, looking for common themes.

It was not an easy task, either physically or emotionally.

"It's had its difficult days," said Marta Crilly, an archivist for the city who has served as the point person for the memorial project. "We do have records of tragedies at the archives -- [including] the Cocoanut Grove fire [in 1942], the Great Molasses Flood [in 1919]. What's very different about this is we're documenting history that we've all experienced. Often we're trying to piece together stories, and we don't have to do that here. It is very, very fresh.

"But I think our entire staff feels that it's a privilege to be working on this project. The memorial was an outpouring of love and support by Bostonians and the community. ... [To see that has] been a really beautiful thing."

For Tisdale, it's been a chance to tell an important story and to help the community deal with the emotions of not only that day and the days and weeks that followed, but also of the coming days, including the one-year anniversary and the 2014 edition of the race.

Tisdale, Crilly & Co. also realized quickly reliving that day would be hard for many people.

"Objects can be touchstones," Tisdale said. "Seeing these does bring back a lot of emotion and a lot of memories from last April.

"We didn't want to leave people to grapple with it without a lot of resolution."

To that end, the exhibition is designed in three parts. The first third focuses on the emotion of the marathon, the attack and the days immediately after. The second third focuses on the call to action afterward, on moving past the day and starting to heal. And the final third focuses on the uplifting.

"Really [the last part is] about all of the messages that were hopeful and about the future," Tisdale said, "about trying to find a way through, to come out the other side."

"'Dear Boston' represents our strength and solidarity not only as a city, but also as a community that supports one another through even the most difficult of times," Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. "I encourage people -- residents and visitors alike -- to visit the exhibition, experience the resilience of the people of Boston, and view the messages of hope and healing."

The exhibition is part of a larger effort by Boston-area cultural institutions, led by the New England Museum Association, to help those affected by the tragedy of last year heal. Called "#BostonBetter," the collaboration will include exhibitions like "Dear Boston," concerts, workshops and talks.

"Like the original memorial in Copley Square, exhibitions like 'Dear Boston' can help us find meaning from tragedy and bring us closer together," Dan Yaeger, NEMA executive director, said in a statement. "We hope that #BostonBetter can provide that, helping to inspire people to act for the betterment of their communities moving forward."

"We understand that this exhibition is not gonna work for everyone," Tisdale said. "Some will feel it doesn't dig deeply enough into that tragedy. Some will think it digs too deeply, and brings up too much emotion. And that's OK."

In the end, the message is what matters: Though tragedies do happen, sometimes close to home, no one has to face them alone.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.