Shameless Stewards

On Wednesday night the Peabody Essex Museum finally came before the Salem Historic Commission and admitted that the “bulk” of collections in their Phillips Library, consisting of archives which generations of Salem families, businesses, and organizations have donated to this Salem institution, would not return to Salem after a prolonged period in which these records were housed in a temporary facility during which the library was supposedly being “renovated”.  We know now that the renovation consisted of transforming the historic library into offices: only when permissions for exterior changes were required did the Museum have to come before the Historic Commission, and everything was revealed. In an article by Dustin Luca in The Salem News, PEM facilities director Bob Monk admitted that this meeting “didn’t go quite as planned. Our intent on it was to be about architecture, and we got word just prior to the meeting that there was a lot of social media activity surrounding the collections.” Gee, maybe the citizens of Salem were upset that their material heritage was being stolen from them, without even the courtesy of a press release!



All is lost PhillipsPhotographs of the James Duncan Phillips Library from less than a decade ago, after a substantial renovation by Rizvi  Architects, which included “the addition of climate-controlled archives, galleries, reading rooms, and a new compact storage space for the library’s extensive collection”. It was closed only a few years after this rehabilitation.

The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, but I kept waiting, hoping, praying for the Phillips to be returned to us–or at the very least some sort of announcement as to its fate. I guess we didn’t deserve one. Much more context is in my “Losing our History” post back in August, when the Library simply announced it would close down completely so that its collections could be moved from the temporary facility to what now will be their permanent home–a large conservation facility in Rowley. If you go to that post, (which you should, because it’s quite good if I do say so myself and I’m too upset to write anything that coherent right now) you will see a comment from John D. Childs, the newly-appointed Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library in which he states if you had reached out to PEM prior to writing this post, we might have been able to allay some of your concerns. Let me assure you that further information answering many of your questions will be forthcoming in the coming weeks. Well, my concerns are not allayed, obviously,  and we heard nothing from the PEM until they needed something from a city board—but I really must contact the family of Ann C. Pingree, as well as every overseer and trustee whose address I can lay my hands on.

All is Lost new plans

The Museum’s current architects, Schwartz/Silver, are transforming the Plummer and Daland buildings, which have housed the Phillips Library for over a century, into a glass-conjoined office building.

Before this big reveal, I happened to come across an article written by Dan L. Monroe, the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the PEM and Robert N. Shapiro, President of its Board of Trustees, in which the two men chide the trustees of the Berkshire Museum for “violating the public trust” for planning to sell 40 works in its collection. In the opinions of Mr. Monroe and Mr. Shapiro, Trustees of a nonprofit museum are fiduciaries who are responsible for representing and acting in prudent ways to assure that museum collections, facilities and funds are used as intended to benefit the public…..these works of art were given to the Berkshire Museum by individuals who intended that they be presented and shared with the public on a permanent basis. The Board of the Berkshire Museum was entrusted with the responsibility to fulfill these donor intentions and to serve as responsible stewards of the art given to the museum to be forever accessible to the people of Pittsfield, the citizens of the Commonwealth and the American public at large. This from two men who have been planning and plotting to sever Salem from its material and historical heritage for quite some time: and what about the “donor intentions” of all those Salem residents, who left their cherished possessions and papers to an institution which promised to act as a “responsible steward”? History is as much a public commodity as art, I would argue even more so, but that is a truth that the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum has never embraced, much less acknowledged.

37 responses to “Shameless Stewards

  • rousseauman

    Absolutely horrible and shameful. It’s clear they knew exactly what they were doing and it would not be supported if residents/historians/ and genealogist knew ahead of time. They pre-empted any possibility of a fight, and in the end raped Salem and Essex County history. Rowley is where they will dump things. Who will travel to Rowley? Not many. So, you will see less hours at this facility in the future. It will be forgotten about and poof disappear entirely. $$$$$ rules the day. Historical legacies 00000. Arrgghh…..

  • bonniehurdsmith

    The fact is, the PEM doesn’t want the library and hasn’t since the current administration took over. I think it’s time, probably overdue, for SSU and PEM to negotiate moving the library to Salem State. Fighting with them is pointless, AND they don’t want it, AND they can spin it to look like the good guys who are magnanimously keeping it in Salem. It’s also likely that this was their plan all along, because they have taken deliberate steps to close and bury it for 20 years. Sid’s departure gave them an opportunity.

    • daseger

      Do not disagree, Bonnie–and maybe this will happen, but it’s going to take a big buy-in from SSU leadership and I’m not sure we’re there yet!

    • Don Carleton

      I agree with Bonnie–once PEM made the choice to deemphasize the archival/historical side of its operations, a deal with SSU to do a phased transfer of the Phillips collections could have been a win-win for all involved. But that does not seem to be how the “leadership” there thinks.

  • Nancy Lutts

    Hello Donna, thank you for your strong words about the Phillip library and archives. You are right on target and I believe many Salem people support you

    Sent from my iPad


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  • bradaustin

    Thanks for your passion, and this information, Donna.

  • A ‘temporary’ move now permanent? Salem’s archives remain offsite – Witches of Massachusetts Bay

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  • bradaustin

    As I read through the statement that Monroe and Shapiro penned about the Berkshire Museum, I keep coming back to their assertion that the Museum had been “entrusted with the responsibility to fulfill these donor intentions and [must] serve as responsible stewards of the art given to the museum to be forever accessible to the people of Pittsfield, the citizens of the Commonwealth and the American public at large.”

    That sentiment seems relevant to the PEM’s decision in at least three ways: 1) the focus on donor intent, 2) the need to “responsible stewards,” and, most relevantly, 3) the necessity that the materials be “forever accessible to the people of Pittsfield.”

    I wonder if Monroe and Shapiro would conclude that relocating the Berkshire materials to an offsite location (Is Worcester close enough? NYC? Permanently traveling exhibitions? What if they sold only to other museums that they could trust to care for the materials–would that make everything ok? Would they mind if the materials were displayed in a Salem art museum?) would be compatible with donor intent? Would such an arrangement make the materials “forever accessible to the people of Pittsfield?” Are there different standards for donated art than there are for document collections?

    Lots to think about here, Donna. Thanks for sharing.

    • daseger

      Thanks Brad–that is where my mind was going to, the parallels seemed striking to me at midnight last night so I’m glad they still seem so this morning! It would be nice if Monroe and Shapiro would weigh in.

    • Allyson freedman

      A few issues/misconceptions. First, pem is not selling anything. Whether relocating collections breaks with donor intent is unclear but unlikely. All the museum.collections not in view are being relocated.

      A better question is why. The Phillips building will be very expensive to upgrade to adequate climate standards and is too small for the library. All of this is priorities, of course. For years pem has poured $ into buildings, temporary exhibitions and obscene salary for management at the expense of collection maintenance and care. The library, whose books if not mss is entirely catalogued, has been better tended than the art, which remains largely uncatalogued and in substandard conditions and housing and is arguably more central to mission. The relocation of collections to Rowley is a short term decision with huge ling term consequences. Why not find a site in Salem or stay closer at least. Yet the museum has a huge endowment. So where does the $ go? Hard to know since they do not put out an annual report.

      • daseger

        Thank you for your comments, Allyson–yes I did not mean to imply that they were selling anything in their collection but rather to expose hypocrisy relative to public stewardship. I know what you mean—all this money and all these glitzy exhibitions: why are they so reluctant to showcase their own collections?

      • dccarletonjr

        Anyone interested in exploring PEM’s finances can view their IRS 990 tax returns at It’s a very useful service; the only downside is that the most recent returns available are usually at least a year old or so…

  • Rick Ouellette

    Thank you for your reporting on this. I agree with the other commenters and yourself that this is a contemptible move on the museum’s part. I feel this may be a symptom of the corporatizing of culture, where these institutions get too big to be accountable. Hopefully, the library will find a new place in its hometown and that PEM will foot the bill for it. One can hope.

  • Donald Yacovone

    I am a professional historian, and the destruction of the PEI has repercussions far beyond Salem. Its manuscript collections are important to American history, not just to Salem. I used them for my first book back in the 1980s and the loss of the PEI’s journal was the first significant sign of what lay ahead. There is no reason why the PEI could not flourish. It only lacks the commitment of its current owners.

  • Katherine Greenough

    Donna — I’m so glad you brought this to our attention and hope you’ve alerted the “Salem Evening News” and “The Boston Globe” to this most unfortunate decision. It’s a story that deserves attention in that it severely violates the wishes/ instructions of the donors and the promises made to those donors by PEM. Of course, disposing/ selling and moving of treasures bequeathed by individuals and families to institutions is nothing new, unfortunately. The MFA, Harvard, and many other institutions do it all the time. The problem here for PEM, in my view, will be the lack of transparency about their decision. It is never a good idea to hide a big decision that will become public anyway. The best recourse now is for PEM leadership to admit their mistake in not being open about the situation.

    • dccarletonjr

      Totally with you on the transparency issue. There should have been an extended process of public dialogue over the library’s future. Instead I couldn’t get an answer from their staff about where they would be reopening even a day or two before the Peabody operation was shuttered!

      It seems to me that PEM has long been very opaque about its operations…

  • Jim Ayers

    Dan Monroe has raped the PEM.He has always acted in a fashon with disregard for what that museum was intended to be. I am suprised that the Salem Marine society has not stopped him. My mother was assistant to the director of the Peabody museum(it was just the Peabody museum and the Essex instute were seperate back then) and workd there for 40 plus years,when Dan Monroe became director she told me he was intended in changing the face of the museum, he took over ine of the formost maritine museums in the country and turned it into a art and culture museum. I spend countless hours in that museum while I was growing up, now I can’t find enough to keep my intrest for more than a half hour.
    Steeling Salem’s histroy by basicly closing the Phillips library . He has ben planing this ever since he took over. Vheck hus work histroy. The trustees should remove him and his cronies.

  • Almquist Nanny

    “Shameless Stewards” is absolutely correct. Your blog post today hit me like a punch in the stomach. I have been waiting years now to return to the Phillips Library, that beautiful space, to see and read the materials my aunt Elizabeth Osborne generously gave to the library about our ancestor Juan Francesco Machado, immigrant from Cuba, in the mid-19th century. When I was last there and inquired about these papers and photos, I was told they had yet to be catalogued. Then the library closed. I waited and waited. Whenever I asked at the PEM about the library’s reopening I would get some evasive answer. I am sick about it. I plan to write the PEM a letter resigning my museum membership and informing them I will never darken their doors or support them in anyway until the contents of the Phillips library are back in the Phillips Library building, or at least somewhere near-by in Salem. I encourage others to do the same. I plan to share this story and my reaction with any and all who have any connection to Salem and its history.

    Amongst the Machado children to grow up in Salem were Salomé, Smith College’s first Latina graduate, and Ernest, well known architect, who designed many public buildings and private estates in Essex Co., including the chapel at Harmony Grove where he, his parents, and most of his siblings and their families are buried.

    • daseger

      Thank you so much for sharing this with me and all of us on the site—and please do share with the PEM and the Salem MA Historic Commission–I will as well. A heartbreaking story, and I’m sure there are many more out there.

  • Almquist Nanny

    Below is the letter I’ll be sending to the PEM Trustees:

    Dear Mr. Shapiro and your Fellow Trustees of PEM,

    Enclosed please find my membership card to the PEM. I no longer want anything to do with your institution, and vow never to cross your threshold again until and unless you re-open the Phillips Library as a research library and depository for Salem’s historical materials. To turn that gorgeous space that was built and intended for public use into offices for PEM staff is a travesty and a disgrace. Shame on you for allowing such a disregard for the former Essex Institute and its mission and purpose to collect, preserve, and make accessible Salem’s history. You have robbed Salem of its defacto historical society.

    I encourage any and all of you who share my feeling to return their PEM membership cards with similar accompanying letters.

  • Dr. Rebecca Hains

    Donna, do you have any thoughts on potentially effective actions that could be taken surrounding this? A petition, a letter-writing campaign, etc.? I have seen many businesses and organizations shamed into doing the right thing (e.g., locally, Beverly Hospital was shamed into not shuttering its Birth Center back in 2008).

    Perhaps there is still hope that the board of trustees would respond to the community’s needs and wishes if presented in a highly visible way, driven by collective action.

    • Ruthann

      Where are attorneys which will stand up to the city, which is oversight to PEM?

    • daseger

      Hi Rebecca. We’ve already begun the letter-writing campaign, and the best recipient is the Salem Historic Commission for now–although I am sending letters to all the PEM Trustees. We’re working with several politicians now, but if that doesn’t pan out might the way to go. We’re kind of scrambling, since the PEM did not make an official announcement long ago when it began pursuing this course of action (which of course was their plan). I’m wondering what SSU could do institutionally, so if you have any thoughts on that let me know!

      • Dr. Rebecca Hains

        Perhaps it’s worth a conversation about this with SSU’s library directors. If it seemed plausible, perhaps President Keenan would be willing to become involved and attempt to facilitate a transfer to a SSU location? Given the current situation, it seems that the state university might be a more trustworthy keeper of these archives.

        I’m not a historian, but I care about our history and am good with media/advocacy. If I can be of any help, please let me know.

      • daseger

        I Rebecca, thanks.

  • Ruthann

    Why is no one forcing Peabody Essex Museum and Salem to abide by the law?
    I have been trying for several months.
    All I hear are complaints, but not challenging the illegalities by a supposedly non-profit and the city.
    When will people in Salem actually do more than the complaints I hear?
    Talk is cheap.

    • daseger

      Well, Ruthann, we’re not exactly sure what the “law” is here, or what “illegalities” you are referring to here. The PEM is a private institution, so even when they talk about their “public” role, there’s not much there to enforce it! But let me assure you, there are many people who are working on this and not just talking. If you want to do more than talk, you could send a letter to the Salem Historic Commission or come out today at noon in front of the PEM for a peaceful protest.

  • anonymous revolted

    ….sad story, rather reality….I read that in Great Britain there is one book store closing per day. The reading generation slowly but surely fades away. Nothing is there to replace books and paper material in feeling and substance. Google had a project (I believe) to scan what ever they could lay there hands on…I don’t know where that went. It is a meager substitute for going to a Library like you describe…yet better than nothing.
    Barbarians at the gates (many say).

    Anonymous Revolted,
    Los Angeles, California.

  • Sean

    Phillips Library – Public Forum
    Thursday, January 11th at 6pm
    PEM’s Morse Auditorium.

    This might be the date to work around and try to get some proper attention paid. The way the collection is being managed is a slap in the face to Salem’s history, and shows a profound disrespect for the people of Salem, past and present, who have cared deeply for it.

  • downeastdilettante

    So, what are we dealing with here? New ‘Young Turks’ on the board, who belong to the new ‘must gut and remodel and change everything’ mindset that seems to have taken over that segment of the world (perish forbid even a bathroom fixture be more than 3 years old)? An ill-informed board being led by a resume driven director? And what’s next? Put all that tired old China Trade stuff in storage to display something new? Yes, I realize I’m being sarcastic, but when one considers the scale of their recent fundraising, the scale of their terrible new addition on the museum itself, the generic dullness of their new non-regional ‘global’ exhibitions, and the sheer awfulness of this plan, one has to wonder what’s going on in the heads of the long-range planning committee.

    And all that aside, a terrible shame to alter the interior of the Phillips buildings—which were always such a great joy to visit, and gave a sense of moment to the occasion. Why couldn’t they follow the much more practical and subtle lead of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland Maine, to mention an excellent example, who in need of office space in their similar physical situation, chose not to build a new starchitect building, but rather bought a department store block adjoining their building, using the upstairs as new offices, and gutting the interiors downstairs for new galleries, but keeping the museum store in the storefront on the street ((what a concept), where it could be entered from both street and museum, and vice versa. A superb example of tact and good urbanism, with excellent results.

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