One of the first things visitors see as they walk through the ornate ground floor of Chicago’s landmark Cultural Center is a cluster of four glass houses. Each has 700 glass brick openings — a stark, physical reminder of the average number of people killed by guns each week in the country. Designers of the Gun Violence Memorial Project say just as the AIDS Memorial Quilt raised awareness about a deadly disease, they want their focus on victims of gunfire to bring widespread attention to what they consider another epidemic.
Each glass house contains some empty bricks while others are labeled with the names, birthdays and the dates people died. The spaces hold small pieces of who they were — a hairbrush, pieces of jewelry. A photograph. Pam Bosley stands near the space she filled with a diorama and her face lights up as she talks about her 18-year-old son, Terrell Bosley.
“Terrell loved to go to church so I have a church and he loved family — so it’s a picture of us as a family,” she says.
Terrell Bosley was a college student who played the bass in church bands and sang in church choirs. In 2006, he was gunned down in a church parking lot while he helped a friend unload drums from a car. Bosley wears pictures of her son on a pendant necklace and a bracelet. She says the diorama also shows how much he loved music.
“And it has drums. His driver’s license — that’s in there. He was somebody who had dreams, hopes,” she says. “He wanted to be somebody and he would have been somebody if his life wasn’t ended.”
Bosley and another mother who lost her son to gunfire were the inspiration for the exhibit. The follow-through came from the Mass Design Group and artist Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with gun violence prevention groups including “Everytown for Gun Safety” and “Purpose Over Pain.” The exhibit was part of the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial and Thomas says the houses are a poetic and inviting way to engage people in what’s often a political and divisive issue. For him, it’s also personal. He lost a cousin to gun violence in 2000.
“I recognized that there are memorials all over the country for heroes of wars and fallen soldiers,” Thomas says. “But there are no memorials for the tens of thousands of people who die every year in our country.”
People memorialized in the exhibit are of different ages and races. Some died by domestic violence, some by suicide, others in random acts of street gun violence. Jha D Williams, with Mass Design Group, says there’s a reason why their artifacts are in houses.
“When you understand how many households have guns in them, how many gun violence deaths, how many suicides take place in a household, etc.” says Williams. “We wanted to be able to metaphorically bring in that information through the form of the houses.”
In each glass house there are also audio interviews from people affected by gun violence. In one, 10-year-old Leila Ramgren talks to her father about the 2016 killing of Philando Castile. He was the lunchroom manager at a Minnesota school who was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop.
“He loved kids. He used to have secret handshakes for people,” says Ramgren, “and if you didn’t have enough on your tray he’d pull out graham crackers or something and he did it with his own money.”
In another interview, Emily Addison talks about her partner, Deonka Drayton, who died when a gunman killed 49 people at Pulse Nightclub in Florida in 2016.
“She used to always tell me that as long as she was alive, our son and I would never want for anything and she kept her word,” Addison says.
Throughout the day, docents lead tour groups through the Cultural Center and many stop to step inside the glass houses to take a look. Joe Miles from Arkansas was in one group.
“Oh, I think it’s just heart wrenching is what it is to me,” Miles says. “To think that so many young lives have been lost.”
Brendan Varilek recently graduated from the University of Michigan’s College of Architecture. “Coming here and seeing very, very personal items related to these victims makes it seem closer to home even for strangers.
And 22-year- old security guard Terry Harris says the exhibit makes him introspective. “I couldn’t help but to think what if I was in their shoes? What would my family pick for me? What would symbolize me? It’s so sensitive. It’s so powerful.”
The Gun Violence Memorial closes in Chicago on Feb. 9, then heads to Washington, D.C., where in April it will be on display at the National Building Museum. The memorial’s designers say this exhibit is a work in progress and the first step in creating a national and permanent memorial to gun violence victims. In two years they hope to have an installation of glass houses memorializing gun victims on the National Mall and later a glass house in every U.S. state and territory. They want the country to see past statistics and to acknowledge the real lives claimed by gunfire.