It is pretty well-known here in Salem that the Red Line that runs though downtown, the official “Heritage Trail”, is more representative of commerce than history. It encompasses heritage sites like the House of the Seven Gables, the Corwin (“Witch”) House and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but also more dubious enterprises like the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, with no discernment. There are no standards along the Heritage Trail: the Peabody Essex Museum with its vast collections, blockbuster exhibitions, and professional staff and the Witch History Museum, a storefront shop which lacks collections, curators, and content, have equal status in terms of their roles as provisioners of “heritage”. According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), a museum is a nonprofit institution, which maintains, interprets, and exhibits its collections for the public good. As Salem’s witch museums are for-profit enterprises, which maintain no collections and offer their performances and “exhibits’ exclusively for their private gain, I don’t think they qualify as museums under the professional definition: I prefer to refer to them as “experiences”.
A Tale of Two Museums; Alvin Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill, 1818, Peabody Essex Museum, and the Gallows Hill exhibit at the Witch History Museum (Of course now we know that the victims of 1692 were hanged at Procter’s Ledge rather than Gallows Hill).
Of course, people are free to choose whatever experiences they would like, but if tourists stick to the Red Line they are going to be missing out on much of Salem’s heritage. And they do stick to the Red Line, believe me: I followed several groups of tourists the other day (on the hottest day of the year) as they walked along it with great dedication, all the way from the Salem Witch Museum to the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, bypassing several sites which are related to the real history of the Witch Trials: St. Peter’s Church, under which the body of Philip English lays, the Howard Street Cemetery, adjacent to where Giles Corey was pressed to death, the former sites of Bridget Bishop’s house and orchard, the Salem Jail and Court House where the accused witches were held and tried. The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum removed the plaque which marked the spot of the original jail and affixed it to their building, so now they “own” that history. The imprimatur of the Red Line makes it official.
Plaque on the Witch Dungeon Museum along the Red Line; the second, smaller plaque was added a decade later than the first.
The problem with the existing Red Line/Heritage Trail is not just its presentation of an incomplete and often-shoddy history of Salem. Because it is so obviously inadequate, it has led to a form of cultural “segregation”: other organizations, chiefly the National Park Service in collaboration with local groups, developed alternative walking trails to fill the gaps: architecture tours, a maritime tour, a tour featuring sites related to Salem’s African-American history, and a Hawthorne tour (you can download all the brochures here). There are also a wide range of commercial tours, which seem to have multiplied dramatically over the past few years. Visitors to Salem can have quite a different experiences depending on their degrees of preparation, resourcefulness, and curiosity. I also think that Salem’s reputation has suffered by comparison with the other Red Line (what I have often heard called the real Red Line), Boston’s Freedom Trail, which does not include commercial sites.
Salem has been a tourist destination for a long time, over a century, and we could learn from our past projections. The map included in my favorite old guidebook, What to see in Salem (1915) projects a route that is not dissimilar from today’s Heritage Trail in terms of geography, but exhibiting very different priorities: public places rather than private enterprises, an integrated city of real museums, sites associated with Hawthorne and the Revolutionary War as well as the Witch Trials, colonial and Federal houses and gardens. The problem with the 1915 route is immediately apparent, however, especially if you compare it with the current Heritage Trail map: no one stood to make any money.
Map and Key from What to see in Salem (1915) and current Heritage Trail Map, available here–all the numbers refer to local businesses and the museums, real and faux, are in text. Judging by font size, the Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre looks like the place to go! (But it’s never open, except in October).