This weekend the Salem Witch Trials Memorial was rededicated, 20 years after its installation and after a year of renovation and fortification by its original mason. The Memorial remains the only Witch-trial-related initiative that I can bear in Salem, and the ceremony marking its re-dedication was, for the most part, simple and respectful, just like the Memorial itself. Descendants of the 20 victims were present, and they placed flowers and rosemary (for remembrance) on their ancestors’ symbolic “graves”, granite benches marked with their names and dates of death built into an encompassing granite dry wall. As you enter the green rectangular courtyard that is the Memorial, surrounded by the colonial gravestones of the Old Burying Point outside of its perimeter, you can read the victims’ protestations of innocence, which are carved on paving stones. Just like the actual words that were uttered, they are cut off , by the Memorial walls.
Exterior and interior views of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, designed by James Cutler and Maggie Williams and built by Hayden Hillsgrove; the descendants of the victims of 1692 stand by their ancestors’ markers; John Willard’s marker/bench.
The Witch Trials Memorial is successful because it is so strikingly simple in its understatement: it does not tell us how to feel. The victims speak for themselves, until they are cut off. Unfortunately, the proclaimed mission and attendant speeches associated with the Memorial and the other official commemorative initiative, the Salem Award, attempt to impose a redemptive lesson about tolerance which I believe diminishes the historical tragedy of 1692. If you emphasize the ideal of tolerance above everything else, the presupposition is that the accusers of 1692 were not tolerant of the victims’ aberrant belief system, when there is no historical evidence that the latter were practicing witchcraft. It is always difficult to reconcile the past and the present and not lose sight of one or the other.
Just last summer, an equally evocative memorial to the victims of another seventeenth-century series of witch trials, the Vardø trials in the Finnmark region of northeastern Norway, opened to the public. As with the Salem installation, the Steilneset Memorial is a collaboration between an architect and an artist: Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the late French-born artist Louise Bourgeois. The Vardø trials, which occurred in two distinct phases in the dead of the Arctic winter (in 1621 and 1662-63), resulted in the execution of 91 people for the crime of sorcery. Zumthor’s two-structure memorial is a far more elaborate construction than Salem’s, but still absolutely austere. The architecture and the art represent both the individual victims and the collective tragedy, via one illuminated window for each of the victims in the long gallery building and a perpetually-burning chair in the “cube” structure next door. Like the Salem Memorial, Steilneset focuses completely on people, and lets its viewers draw life lessons.
The Steilneset Memorial in summer and winter, overlooking the Barents Sea, and the last creation of Louise Bourgeois, “The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved”. Photographs by Bjarne Riesto.