Salem Film Fest 2018

It is that time of year again: time for the annual Salem Film Fest, now in its eleventh year and very firmly established on the cultural calendar. Over the years, it has been very inspiring to see the festival’s growth: in terms of participation, attendance, offerings and impact. The care taken with curation is always very apparent to me: resulting in a nice balance of films with themes that are global and local, environmental and material, very serious and a bit more whimsical. One of the first films I saw at the festival was Grown in Detroit, way back in 2011: this was an interesting window into the urban crisis playing itself out in Detroit at the time and this year’s Beauty and Ruin offers another by focusing on the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, which some thought might provide a solution to the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. I’m really looking forward to this film: as most of you know, the sanctity (and proximity) of a community’s treasures are important to me, and this film will be playing in PEM’s lovely Morse Auditorium!


FilmFest2 Stills and scenes of Detroit past and present in Beauty and Ruin.

I have a friend who oversaw the recent Skinner auction of important items from Avis and Eugene Robinson’s collection of African American history (and also this beautiful–but also troubling—catalog), so I’m also interested in seeing Black Memorabilia, which examines “the subculture around the collectibles and antiques that serve as reminders of America’s troubled racial past and present”. And speaking of subcultures, I might go for Mermaids, in which a select group of individuals idolize, identify and occasionally “become” sirens of the sea. In keeping (somewhat) with the marine theme, the South Korean film Old Marine Boy about a daring North Korean deep-sea diver in the South, looks amazing. On a very different note, I’m kind of interested in seeing Rodents of Unusual Sizeabout the enormous orange-toothed swamp rats (nutria) which have infested the waters of Louisiana post-Katrina and oil spills, but I’m not quite sure I want to spend so much time with these odious creatures on the big screen.

Mermaids Film

Old Marine Boy

Rodents2Scenes from Mermaids, the Old Marine Boy, and the poster for Rodents of Unusual Size.

Remember the Armory

The opposition to the Peabody Essex Museum’s removal of Salem’s historical archives to an industrial park in Rowley incorporates a range of perspectives: some people have never been in the Phillips Library but nevertheless have been waiting for its return; others have very concrete memories of childhood forays or later visits to research some specific aspect of their Salem past: their house, their neighborhood, their family. Everyone had great expectations: as the Museum leadership closed the Library in 2011 with promises to return in two years, only to disclose the Rowley move six years later, under duress. Expectations are a powerful motivating force, but so too is distrust: and for those of longer Salem residence the latter is clearly apparent. For them, the PEM’s latest move (literally and figuratively) falls into an established pattern of behavior that has broken trust with the Salem community. And the event that looms largest in this pattern is the demolition of the storied Salem Armory in 2000, under the auspices of the Peabody Essex Museum, which had previously signed a memorandum of agreement to preserve and incorporate the Armory’s headhouse into its expansion plans. Only the Armory entry arch remains on Essex Street, right next door to what used to be the Phillips Library, a constant reminder of what was and what was not preserved.

Armory 2

Salem Armory LOC

Armory Arch

The Salem Armory in 1992, ten years after a ravaging fire, and the year of the Memorandum of Agreement by which the “Museum Collaborative” promised to preserve its headhouse. This was also the same year that the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem were merged to form the Peabody Essex Museum, which was still bound by that agreement. Library of Congress.

The Armory story–of its rise, role, and fall–has been written about many times, and well: the preservation report and narrative for the MOA is here, some colorful context is here, and the story in parts, right up to arrival of the wrecking ball, is here. But one of the most poignant accounts of the Armory (or of any building’s destruction, frankly) that I have ever read is a Letter to the Editor (of the Salem Evening News) written by Salem architect Staley McDermet in 2002, two years after its demolition. Mr. McDermet asks for an apology that I don’t think he–or we–every received, and goes on to document everything that happened. Indeed, the letter is historical in terms of both intent and subject, but it is also a very timely document, in light of the PEM’s recent actions and their explanations for actions in the past, so timely that I thought it should be “published” again.

Armory text 1

Armory text2

Armory text 3

Armory text 4


First-Period Fantasy

I’ve been obsessed with the Downing-Bradstreet house (which once occupied the site of another current obsession, the Phillips Library) for quite some time: consequently I took advantage of some extra time during this past spring break to dig a little deeper into its history. Actually, the history is easy: it’s the projection that is difficult. We know that this “mansion house” was built by 1640 and demolished more than a century later, but our only image of it was created by a man who was born after its demolition and whose source is unknown:  did it really look like this?

Oldest House Bradstreet-Downing

Wow: that’s a big house with a lot of windows, gables, glass, and finials. What in the world are those “flanking towers reminiscent of feudal days”, in the words of Frank Cousins? Are they made of glass? Indeed they were according to Robert Rantoul’s 1888 essay on the “New Domain” of the Essex Institute, which describes what preceded its buildings on “Downing Block”: it had two massive sets of chimneys and also two transparent, hollow columns of lead sash and diamond glass, great lanthorns (?????), one of either side of the front door, for lighting up the ample grounds in front, and these rose from the foundation to the roof and contained a cupboard-door at each floor of the house for inserting candles or other illuminating appliances on occasion of festivity or other need of light. Wow again. All of this illumination, combined with the scale and detail of the house, makes it appear more like a romantic fantasy of a seventeenth-century house than an actual seventeenth-century structure, especially as it was situated in frontier Salem. This “grate” house, either real or embellished, was built by London barrister Emmanuel Downing, the brother-in-law of Governor John Winthrop, who eventually returned to England leaving the mansion to his daughter Ann as part of the dowry for her marriage to Captain Joseph Gardner, who was killed in the Great Swamp Fight of King Philip’s War in December of 1675. In the following year, the Widow Gardner married Simon Bradstreet, the last Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose first wife Anne, America’s first published poet, had died in 1672. Bradstreet returned to Salem (his port of entry to the New World) and took up residence in the Mansion until his death in 1697. Both he and Ann are buried in the Old Burying Ground on Charter Street. The now-Bradstreet House was passed down in the Ropes family for a few generations, but ultimately it was transformed into a tavern (the Globe), divided, and demolished in 1753. The artist of its iconic image, Marblehead painter and muralist Samuel Bartoll (1765-1835) created both the painting above and a similar one of the Corwin (Roger William House in the 19th century; “Witch House” in the 20th) in 1819-1820: what was the basis of his conception?

Bradstreet collage

Bradstreet Witch House BartollFrank Cousins photograph of the Bartoll painting; 1930 Port of Salem map, Boston Public Library & illustration from Lossing’s History of the United States of America (1913); Samuel Bartoll’s Corwin House, Peabody Essex Museum.

I have no answers to the questions I am asking, but it’s still important to ask them, as these idealized (?) images guided so many restoration projects later on. Nathaniel Hawthorne likely saw the Bartoll paintings in Salem: they influenced his vision in the House of the Seven Gables, which later inspired the material transformation of the Turner-Ingersoll mansion into the more “picturesque” House of the Seven Gables by Caroline Emmerton and Joseph Everett Chandler in 1908-1910. Later in the twentieth century, the Corwin House underwent a similar transformation—back (or forward) to the Bartoll vision, with a few less finials.

Bradstreet Bartoll Chairs Julia Auctions

Bartoll Landing of the Pilgrims 1825More idealized American imagery from Samuel Bartoll: Painted Hitchcock Chairs, James D. Julia Auctions; and a Fireboard Depicting the Landing of the Pilgrims, 1825, Peabody Essex Museum.

Green(houses) in Salem

So I can show you the beautiful day after our third big snowstorm of March, and also anticipate St. Patrick’s Day coming up this weekend, I am showcasing a portfolio of some of Salem’s green houses today, many cast in snow. It’s a very popular house color in Salem, so this is just a representative sampling. Green is a color that seems to transcend architectural style: you can easily find colonial, Federal, and all variations of Victorian examples. There are no green houses on Chestnut Street (where yellow is an exotic color) so I trudged over to Essex Street, where I found many—and even more on Federal Street.

Green Houses 7

Green Houses 14

Green Houses 9

Green Houses 8

Green Houses 15

Green Houses 5

Green Houses 6

Green Houses 3

Green Houses 4

And then I walked towards downtown and the Common past everyone’s favorite Salem green house: a little gambrel-roofed charmer on North Street, which serves as a constant human-scaled welcome structure along this key entrance corridor, in sharp contradistinction to the over-scaled courthouse nearby. If this house was not here, and maintained in such perfect condition, visitors to Salem would have quite a different first impression: the house softens the street and hints at a more historic Salem.

Green Houses 2

And then I was off, seeing green everywhere I went, all day yesterday and into this morning: you will note that the snow has melted off the trees in some of the pictures below, a sure sign of a late-season snowstorm. I tried to represent all shades of green: a very deep forest variety, emerald, and apple and minty greens that seem a bit more spring-like. Almost unbelievably, it will be Spring in Salem next week.





Green Houses 13

Uncovering a Shipwreck

Our recent nor’easter uncovered a skeletal shipwreck on Short Sands Beach in my hometown of York, Maine, and I dispatched my parents to take pictures almost as soon as the skies cleared, knowing that our mercurial weather could result in its resubmergence at any time. This particular shipwreck has actually appeared several times over the last fifty years or so, but this time it attracted a lot of attention, both locally and nationally. Many of the stories referred to it as the remains of a “revolutionary era” ship, but the most recent report, based on empirical mapping and sampling by an archaeologist for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and past research, indicates that the ship might have been a pre-revolutionary “pinky” sloop named the Industry, which ran aground in York with a southbound cargo of lumber in October or November of 1769. The source for this information is a retired York police officer named Barry Higgins, who became curious about the shipwreck after its appearance in the 1980s. And where did Mr. Higgins go to research this wreck? Why the Phillips Library of course, which was/is not only the major repository of local and family history in our city and region, but also of maritime history. At that time, it was open and accessible, and Mr. Higgins found the reference to the Industry in the journal of York notary public Daniel Moulton: for which we can all see a description in the digitized catalog, but not much more than that.

Shipwreck long beach

Shipwreck SS2

Shipwreck SS4

Shipwreck SS3The Short Sands Shipwreck last week.

First impressions are of the remains of a relatively small ship, yet the national reports immediately went naval: the Washington Post consulted with a Naval History and Heritage Command official who consulted a database of 2,500 shipwrecks but was unable to find any records indicating it was an American sloop. But Mr. Higgins knew just where to go thirty years ago, to Salem’s Phillips Library, a well-known repository of maritime history. All of these records are now removed from their natural foundation, en route to Rowley (or perhaps already there in their boxes), and hopefully the state of Maine will have enough sway to gain access so that the identity of this slippery sloop can be verified, again and once and for all.

Shipwreck gone2

Shipwreck gone The Short Sands Shipwreck yesterday–gone but not forgotten.

SHipwreck last

Salem Women’s Lives in the Phillips Library

As they are now, Salem women were really, really busy in the near and more-distant past, and the records in the Phillips Library are a testament to both the range and intensity of their activities. At this moment, the PEM is highlighting all of the powerful women whose work and lives are featured in their 2018 slate of exhibitions, including Georgia O’Keeffe, artist and facilitator Angela Washco, photographer Sally Mann, and a succession of Qing Dynasty empresses of China. In her post, Lydia Gordon writes about “multiple feminisms” and observes that to operate in feminist modes is not just advocating for women’s issues, but rather to take on the human issues within social, cultural, economic and political arenas of our lives. To be a feminist is to be human. I couldn’t agree more, and while it is wonderful to have all these exhibitions on view here in Salem, once again I am struck by the burying of the local past by an institution which is focused primarily on the more global present. For the collections of the PEM’s Phillips Library are full of women tak[ing]on the human issues within [the] social, cultural, economic, and political arenas of [their] lives, and I’m afraid we’re never going to hear their stories–or see their faces.

Woman Pierce PEMThe lovely Catherine Johnson Pierce, who we do get to see in Salem: anonymous American artist, c. 1828-29, Peabody Essex Museum.

So many activist “Republican Mothers” in nineteenth-century Salem! Here’s just a sampling of women’s association papers in the Phillips Library: the Salem Female Charitable Society Records (1801-2001; MSS 359—still active today!), the Dorcas Society of Salem (1811-1875; MSS 113), The Seamen’s Widow and Orphan Association (1833-1960; Acc. 2011.008); the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Records, 1834-1866; MSS 34—fortunately digitized by the Congregational Library and Archives), the Salem Female Employment Society (1861-1875; MSS 113) and the Salem Thought and Work Club (1891-1974), headed by the famed author and activist Kate Tannatt Woods, who deserves her own archive. In her 1977 article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, then-curator Anne Farnam outlined the workings of the Salem Female Charitable Society early in the nineteenth century, and also reads between the lines to illustrate what can be gleaned from the more opaque entries, such as the vote of the SFCS on September 2, 1801 from the first published list of subscribers of the society. Mrs. West was in the process of a bitter divorce, and one would like to have heard that discussion. As the century progresses, Salem women’s organizations continue to serve as charity stewards, and widen their social scope to include abolition, temperance, education and immigration.


WOMEN PEM collage A published sermon for the Salem Female Charitable Society, 1815; and records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society as digitized by the Congregational Library & Archives.

And then there are so many stories of individual women in the Phillips: far too many to include an exhaustive list here. One could: follow a Salem sea captain’s wife along as she accompanies her husband around the world in 1837-38 (Log 405), reconstruct several long-distance marriages by delving into the correspondence between captain’s wives who stayed in Salem and their roving husbands, perceive how several Salem women, from different stations in life, assessed the world around them and their own lives during short and long stretches of time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through their diaries; appreciate the contributions of the extraordinary women of the Remond family (MSS 271), assess the interesting lives and careers of the “Misses Williams” of Salem, two spinster sisters who made, taught, collected and sold art in Salem, and traveled to Italy and elsewhere recording their observations and purchasing items for resale back in their Salem studio/gallery (MSS 253); read cookbooks annotated with notes and suggested variations (MSS 483); examine the unsuccessful restoration of the Qing Dynasty in China from the perspective of three missionaries present at the time (MSS 0.650), learn so much more about the lives and work of so many accomplished Salem women, including Sophia and Rose Hawthorne (MSS 69), educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (MSS 474), author, illustrator and educator Lydia Very (MSS 83), authors Kate Tannatt Woods and Mary Harrod Northend (Fam. Mss 1119 and MSS 0.016) and artist and entrepreneur Sarah Symonds (MSS 0.016).

Women PEM Collage 3

Photograph of Waters family members, undated, MSS 92 Volume 4

Women PEM Williams Sisters Studio

Women PEM Very


Women PEM Woods


Synchronicity Sarah Symonds

Studies of the intersection of maritime and gender histories have been trending for some time–but where do the rich collections of the Phillips Library fit in? Women of the Waters Family–all dressed up and ready to go where? (Phillips MH 12); The Studio of the Misses Williams of Salem (Phillips Library photograph from Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s “The Misses Williams in Salem and Rome: Women Making and Marketing Art and Antiquities.” In The Art of the Deal: Dealers and the Art Market on Both Sides of the Atlantic, 18601940, ed. Lynn Catterson, 59-8 (2017)An illustration by Lydia Very, who bequeathed her Federal Street house to the Essex Institute (MSS 83); Kate Tannatt Woods, Out and About (1882); What Salem Dames Coked, the cookbook published by the Esther C. Mack (another amazing woman) Industrial School in 1910, 1920, and 1933 and reprinted by Applewood Books; The “Colonial Studio” of Sarah Symonds on Brown Street, in a building now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.

As I think about these Salem women on this particular day, in the midst of this particular Women’s History Month, I am dismayed and disheartened when I should be inspired. The sources for women’s history in the Phillips Library are so rich that I have no doubt that they will be discovered and dispersed by a succession of scholars, as many have already (and the digitized catalog and finding aids will facilitate that process), but the prospects for public presentation and engagement seem bleak. As the Phillips collections take up residence in an inaccessible factory, with no obvious digitization plan in place or apparent institutional interest in historical interpretation, it is difficult to see how the people of Salem—or visitors to our “historic city”– will be able to face its history in any meaningful way, like the little girl below.

CurryPhotoTwo-year-old Parker Curry facing Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald: a photograph taken by museum visitor Ben Hines which went viral last week, Washington Post.

An Antiquarian Artist

I’ve been thinking about commemoration—past, present, and future–a lot lately, yet another consequence of the constant interplay between what I do and where I live. I’m pretty sure my understanding of English and western European history between 1400 and 1700 is grounded in historical sources, but I’m increasingly aware that my “knowledge” of American history is much more a product of projection than evidence. And as Massachusetts heads into a prolonged period of commemoration for the 400th anniversaries of Plymouth and its successor settlements (including Salem, which will have to “remember” without its hijacked historical sources), I’ve been reading up on the scholarly literature, and just finished We are What We Remember: The American Past through Commemoration, a volume of essays edited by Jeffrey Lee Meriwether and Laura Mattoon D’Amore. Two essays in particular, D’Amore’s “Patriarchal Boots: Women, Redcoats and the Construction of Revolutionary Memory”, and Anne Reilly’s “The Pilgrimization of Plymouth: Creating a Landscape of Memory in Plymouth, Massachusetts during the Pilgrim Tercentenary of 1920-21”, were quite resonant for me, and almost as soon as I was done with them we were off to see commemoration in practice rather than theory: at the annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre by the Bostonian Society at the Old State House. It was interesting to see the “Colonials” mingle with the large crowd assembled: when well-worn revolutionary phrases were shouted out, I heard several individuals wearing capes, cocked hats, and mob caps replying not yet…..that’s from 1774, or 1775.

We are Crop

Boston Massacre 8

Boston Massacre best

This is a really great event but there are too many glaring lights! Can’t we turn off Boston for a half-hour or so? I suppose not, but we should remember that this epic event was clothed in darkness. Even Revere’s iconic print, which is so important a foundation for our collective memory, casts it in light: it’s not until a century later that we see darker depictions. I wanted to see more after the reenactment, so I started looking around, and came up with several references to a painting by Walter Gilman Page (1862-1934), a prominent Boston artist whose commemorative painting of the Massacre was exhibited in 1899-1900. It received strong reviews, but I can’t find the actual painting anywhere–only illustrations and lantern slides. As you can see, it is dark. Where is it?

Boston Massacre Art Exchange 42

Boston Massacre Page

Page was a wonderful portrait artist (best known for his extremely humanist portrait of a dying Grandmother in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and an active member of the Nantucket Art Colony, but he seems to have been particularly passionate about historical paintings: he depicted several other revolutionary events (Paul Revere’s ride, of course) and also reproduced portraits of founding fathers. The 1899 article in the Art Interchange (the source of the illustration above) notes that Mr. Page’s keen interest in American history of the Revolutionary period is indicated by his membership in several historical societies—charter member of the Society of Colonial Wars for Massachusetts, charter member and vice-president of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the Revolution, and member of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. He is also chairman of the Tablet Committee of the Sons of the Revolution, whose business it is to mark with properly inscribed tablets the scenes of historical events connected with the War of the Revolution. He has been prominently connected with the movement for art and art decoration in the public schools, and is chairman of the Committee of Massachusetts’ Artists for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Artistry and memory: a winning combination, from time immemorial.

Antiquarian Artist Hutchinson.JPG 1900

Antiquarian Artist HancockWalter Gilman Page’s portraits of Thomas Hutchinson (1900, copy of the 1741 portrait by Edward Truman), Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and John Hancock (1906, after John Singleton Copley, Skinner Auctions).

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