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!
Photographs 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.
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.