An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum

Regarding the recent admission that the Museum plans to consign nearly all of the collections of the Phillips Library, including manuscript and printed materials central and unique to the history of Salem, to a new Collections Center in Rowley, before the December 6, 2017 meeting of the Salem Historic Commission.

To Mr. Daniel L. Monroe, The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum, and its Boards of Trustees and Overseers:

Please reconsider your decision to remove Salem’s historical archives from Salem.

I consider the Peabody Essex Museum to be an extraordinary asset to our city, fostering engagement, awareness, and edification. Furthermore, I understand that in order for it to flourish, it had to become greater than the sum of its two parts: the former Peabody Museum and Essex Institute. Yet those two institutions, the products of the fruits and labors of generations of Salem residents, created a foundation on which the PEM was built: a strong foundation that is acknowledged in the museum’s mission statement, which asserts its 1799 foundation and status as “America’s oldest continuously operating museum”. There are no explicit references to history in this statement, but it is implicit everywhere, especially in the aim to transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. A key path towards self-knowledge and knowledge in general is historical understanding, which is grounded in historical archives full of people as well as papers.

Like many in Salem, I am somewhat confused by the PEM’s shifting strategies towards the Phillips Library and the collections therein. For the purpose of clarification, I’d like to lay out my understanding in chronological format; if there are mistakes or misperceptions here I apologize.

1998: Following the merger of the Peabody Museum of Salem and Essex Institute and the consolidation of their two libraries, both named after members of the Phillips family of Salem, a newly-renovated Phillips Library emerges from a $10-million-dollar renovation, the first phase of the Peabody Essex’s $100 million expansion project. “The Real Witchcraft Papers”, on deposit from the clerk of the Superior Court Department of Essex County in order it increase access to historically valuable public records, are installed in a permanent exhibition. In an age of completely convincing copies, the mere knowledge that you’re seeing the originals is exciting, writes Christine Temin in the Boston Globe.

2004: Citing a reduction in visitation, the PEM cuts staff and hours for the Phillips Library,  incurring some serious resistance from scholars, librarians, and the general public (despite a coincidental announcement of its intent to increase its digitization efforts). Richard Trask, archivist for the town of Danvers (the former Salem Village) remarks that the Phillips looks like . . .  the ignored child. I certainly don’t want it to be the abandoned child of the institution.

2011: The Phillips Library in Salem is closed and its collections are moved eventually to a temporary location in Peabody, so that major renovations could be undertaken at its historic Salem buildings, Plummer Hall and Daland House. PEM public relations manager April Swieconek announced that the work would be concluded by 2013, and would guarantee the preservation of the Library’s 400,000 volumes and one linear mile+ of manuscripts, demonstrating just how important it was to the museum—It is a part of what we are and part of what Salem is– in an article in the Salem News by Matthew K. Roy.

2013-2017:  We waited and waited and waited and waited for the Phillips Library to return to Salem. I first heard of the “off-site Collection Stewardship Building”, intended to provide a “state-of-the-art conservation lab for the museum’s 1.8 million objects”, in a 2015 Boston Globe article by Malcolm Gay, which also referenced the ongoing renovations at the Phillips. In 2016, John D. Childs, formerly a conservator at Historic New England and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, was hired to become Chief of Collection Services, but he also acquired the title Ann C. Pingree Library Director at some point in that year, indicating a consolidation of conservation and library oversight. The language on the PEM website relative to the Phillips changed in 2017, with the ominous phrase moving from its temporary facility to a new location first appearing, and finally, after that fateful admission of December 6, The Phillips Library will be moving from its temporary facility in Peabody to a state-of-the-art facility in Rowley, Massachusetts. 

And so that brings us to the present, but I want to go back to 2011, when the PEM offered up two tributes to the Phillips, which in hindsight can only be viewed through a rather bittersweet lens: former Library Director Sidney Berger’s lovely exhibition of collection jewels: Unbound, Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM and Swiss artist and photographer Marianne Mueller’s Freeport [No. 002] exhibition, Any House is a Home. Mueller mined the Phillips archives and walked the streets of Salem to evoke a sense of place rarely seen–or felt–in most PEM exhibitions, and one of her most poignant pieces is a photograph of a young Salem woman standing before one of the pillars of the Phillips “where all the history is stored”. No longer.

PEM History

Rachel Tonthat of Salem before the Phillips Library, “where all the history is stored”, in Marianne Mueller’s 2011 Freeport exhibition at the PEM: Any House is a Home

Mueller perceived that the Phillips was the place “where all the history is stored” because it was the place where all the history was stored in Salem from the mid-nineteenth century to the near-present. Looking back on the Essex Institute’s first fifty years in 1898, President Robert Rantoul sought to explain its overflowing archives (a problem then as now) by its contemporary regard as a place of deposit where everything typical of our heroic past, everything that can embalm the personality and keep alive the memory of actors in the scenes of long ago, may well repose in consecrated security forever. Not only valuable books and rare historical papers — the natural accretions of a great library — have been gathered here, but relics and manuscripts and pictures and ancient records — a priceless legacy to the antiquary and the student of local annals, rich material ready to the hand of the historian — have poured in upon us until our receptivity is overtaxed… Shall we cry, hold! enough!  No, he concludes, that would never do. As befitting its name, the Institute was collecting the history of all of Essex County, but its Salem location, mandated by its 1848 articles of incorporation, crowded out the formation of any competing historical associations in the city: Salem’s historical society was the Phillips Library, and it still is.

Essex Institute Incorporation

1848 Act of Incorporation for the Essex Institute, Commonwealth of Massachusetts

And consequently, nearly every Salem street, square, park, and many buildings, both public and private, can be matched to a corresponding collection in the Phillips Library. I could go on forever making these connections between people, places, and the past, but will confine myself to only one. Salem’s newest public space, Remond Park, is a memorial to the extraordinary Remond family, including the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond. We only have one photograph of their mother Nancy Lenox Remond, a true matriarch and entrepreneurial activist who ran several businesses while simultaneously advocating for national abolition and the local desegregation of the Salem schools, and that photograph is part of the Remond family papers in the Phillips Library, deposited there by her heirs, who saw their family history as part of the history of Salem.


Mrs. Nancy Lenox Remond, n.d., Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum

I am fortunate to be able to access this photograph, and reproduce it: colleagues at Salem State University commissioned its digitization as part of a initiative called SALEM in History funded by a three-year Teaching American History grant from the U.S. Department of Education a decade ago. If not for this initiative, we couldn’t see Mrs. Remond; we still can’t access her family’s records, like those of other families who lived, worked, and built Salem over the centuries. We are cut off from them, and from the history of our city. Such a consequence seems completely inconsistent with the goals of an institution that invites its patrons to discover the inextricable connections that link artistic and cultural traditions as well as one that has indeed invested considerable funds in the maintenance of the Phillips collections and buildings. I do not doubt the PEM’s commitment to the preservation of the historical collections that have been left to its care, but an opportunity has arisen to demonstrate a corresponding commitment to Salem. It might require careful curation, it will certainly require more time and more resources, but the effort will situate the Museum on the right side of history.

Please return Salem’s historical archives to Salem.

Very Sincerely,

Donna A. Seger, Salem

32 responses to “An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum

  • Pearl

    I love section 8!

  • Philip Boys

    Given that I live in London, this can’t amount to much, Donna. But for the record, I’m right behind you.

    I’ve been reading and forwarding your wonderful blogs for a long time.

    Historic libraries, collections and museums such as Salem’s are absolutely vital for our future.

    I wish you and the people of Salem all the best in your efforts.



    Philip Boys

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    For further information, or to express an interest in the project, please email the editors, Philip Boys & Roy Mills, via

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  • Judy Rosentrater

    Continue your outstanding efforts. You are such an asset to historic Salem.

  • Tim maguire

    This is truly a touching piece. And it encompasses the feelings of all Salemites in this battle.

  • Bonnie Henry

    Great way to start the day this morning. Thank you, Donna. We’ll researched and we’ll stated. We must persist.

  • Nancy Lutts

    Hi. I applaud your fine letter. Thank you, Nancy lutts

    Sent from my iPad


  • Denise Wolff

    ELOQUENT Donna, and I am confident that this should be brought to the attention of Dan Monroe et al, as John D. Childs himself, commented on another of your more recent pieces on this subject, so there is NO excuse for this to go UN-noticed, or for it not to be “delivered” to whom it is written !

  • Tim Jenkins

    Donna: Hear, hear: here, here!

    There is surely a workable solution that affords expanded access to the Phillips Library collections right here in Salem. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to argue that this is best done in Rowley.

    I am amongst many, here in Salem and much further afar, who strongly encourage the museum leadership to rescind their decision and explore a more viable long-term Salem-based stewardship solution. This decision should be accompanied by renewed emphasis on the importance of the former Essex Institute collections, accessibility to the public at large and not just researchers, and most importantly candid and timely dialogue that engenders trust among all stakeholders in our world-class museum.

    We are still making history. We all want to be proud of it. Unfortunately, the way this has been handled is exactly how not to go about being more “transparent”. (See below)

    Thank you Donna for all your efforts to encourage a healthy rethink!

    Sadly, the PEM has made an inauspicious start on their new operating paradigm:

    “-development of a new operating paradigm designed to move away from the ‘attraction’ model of art museums to a new model that creates more meaningful, transparent, and dynamic relationship between the museum and the people it serves.”

    The PEM seemed to me to lose direction when the leadership changed its name from the Peabody Essex Museum to PEM, and began to describe itself solely as an art museum, rather than an art, culture and history museum. Ironically, just when the vision began to shrink, the physical footprint and endowment expanded.

    The is no doubt that the Safdie and the Yin Yu Tang additions were inspired and ushered in a new dynamism in the museum. The leadership of the museum deserves kudos for what they have accomplished. But, the demise of the Phillips Library and the increasing inaccessibility of the former Essex Institute collections and shrinkage of professional staff and accessibility can best be described as short sited, and, more accurately, as a serious breach of the “public trust”.

    A string of unimaginative and ill conceived decisions and solutions on how to best steward the Phillips Library collections now also threaten to impact the beautiful historic buildings that once housed the Salem Athenaeum and Essex Institute. It all adds up to a failure to capitalize on a number of the PEM’s unique strengths and resources.

    Most significantly, a dearth of honest dialogue with the Salem community threatens the museum’s most important and long-standing relationship with the people of Salem. To not fully appreciate how Salem’s many benefactors have influenced the development of the museum, its core values of curatorial scholarship and integrity, and influence on the direction of this nation and the arc of world history, especially for a city of its small size and population, is egregiously shortsighted–a failure to see the forest for the trees.

    The PEM is a unique example in the museum world where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Adding a world-class curiatorial facility in Salem with broad public access would add to its global reputation. It could also kick-start additional efforts to conserve important historic collections in the hands of other Salem institutions and the City itself. We need to combine our efforts by working together to accomplish even more than we thought possible. It is an old tradition in Salem.

    Until this occurs, I am afraid that It has become obvious to the Salem community through repeated missteps that this process is anything but transparent. “Meaningful” and “dynamic” relationships are usually not defined by or result in protests and broad public outcry. It is clearly time to change course, recognize and learn from mistakes the way all successful leaders lead by example.

    “To err is human; to forgive, devine.” Alexander Pope


    So important that this inappropriate decision be revisited and, ideally, revoked. Thank you for this excellent presentation of what is at stake and why it matters.

  • Matt

    Go, Donna!

    When you consider the Phillips Library is, itself, part of their “collection” of art, resources, etc., from donors who provided them with express intent, how can anyone reconcile this move with Monroe’s views on the fiduciary duty of trustees?

    I am sure the PEM will point out that they aren’t selling, and there is still access, but is this only technically true? And is it what donors intended when that building and library were founded/donated? What is the difference between selling the building and building needed office space with the proceeds and converting the building to office space? Seems like indirect “monetization” to me. Does

    Presumably, this Rowley space is housing more of the PEM’s assets than just the PL assets. And presumably there is PEM staff charged solely with preserving assets not otherwise on display or planned for display. And I know the PEM has collection materials on premise in Salem that aren’t planned for display (last I toured it anyway). So why not build office space into the Rowley facility and then reshuffle your office and storage needs in Salem to exclude staff involved in long-term preservation?

    Don’t get me wrong, PEM trustees. Salem is fortunate to have you and the PEM in its current form, and I have been a long-term financial supporter because of it (despite free access with Salem residence). But I agree that you overstepped on this one.

  • Nanette deMaine

    How can I, a senior citizen who walks with a cane and doesn’t have a car, go to Rowley to do research? I feel deprived of a precious asset that clearly belongs in our community. And we had no warning or say in the matter. Please reconsider and do what is right for us and for our city.

  • Nancy

    any legal action being taken?

  • An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum by Donna Seger | Creative Salem

    […] An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum […]

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thank you for your powerful plea to Director Munroe to “return Salem’s archives to Salem.” I also appreciated your clear narrative of the events during the past twenty years that lead up to this misuse of trust by the powers that be at the Phillips Library.

    While not a Salemite, I remain a resident of Essex County deeply distressed about this travesty. Thank you for providing voice to countless others who also feel the loss…

  • Jerry Smith

    Thank you for your letter! You have stated clearly the problem with this whole issue…the PEM’s breaking of the People of Salem’s public trust with the PEM Management. We all hope that the PEM’s decision can be overturned and the Salem documents can stay in Salem. I hope those who read your letter will step forward and add their voice to this issue. Salem’s history belongs to Salem!

  • Carol Majahad

    Bravo. It is also important to remember that the Essex Institute held archival collections from all of Essex County. Many of us working in smaller history museums are both heartbroken and frustrated that these works are no longer accessible. If the library is to remain closed then return these records to the appropriate institutions so that researchers can access the originals.

    Carol Majahad, Director, North Andover Historical Society

    • daseger

      Absolutely, Carol. I am focused on Salem because we have counterpart to the North Andover Historical Society but having immersed myself in the catalog over these past few weeks I am amazed at its depth and breadth.

    • Tim Jenkins

      Trust eroded as access to the Essex Institute/Phillips Library collections declined in recent years. It is a shame. There is a wonderful opportunity to change this by showcasing these remarkable and inspiring collections. I believe the museum is missing a big opportunity, but it is not too late to remedy.

      “And no man, when he hath lighted a lamp, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but putteth it on a stand, that they that enter in may see the light.”

      This is what John Winthrop told his fellow Puritans as they sailed to Salem on the Arbella in 1630 bearing the charter granted by King Charles l to the Massachusets Bay Company. This charter recorded that the Governor was to be “chosen out of the freemen of the saide Company,” Scholars consider this document to record a critical step to full self-government in what ultimately becomes the Unitef States of America.

      An original of this unique and beautiful document is owned by the Salem Athenaeum and on loan to the Peabody Essex Museum so that it can be seen and it’s significance fully appreciated by us all. It is but one of the collection’s great treasures.

      Winthrop continued:

      “It is by mutual consent [that we] seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical. In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects. . . . ” he told them. We go “to improve our lives, to do more service to the Lord. . . . We have entered a covenant with [God] for this work. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

      That City was Salem. The City is where these records of our collective past should be conserved and shared with current and future generations.

  • Carol Deane

    I find it hard to believe that no one saw this coming, and quite ironic that the museum, entrusted with the documents of Salem’s history, has sold its soul to the Devil.

  • anonymous revolted

    I could not agree more with Donna A. Seger. I come from a part of the world where the majority of AUTHENTIC references to the past have been either concealed,falsified or intentionally removed. Banking on my own experience, the end result will be the alienation of the youth which has no feeling of belonging. Moving the Peabody Essex Museum will certainly have the same effect. Let us not forget that belongingness is a human emotional need to be an accepted member of a “unique”, recognizable group. A group that has its own local history, (sometimes) religion, art and/or architecture. We all have an ‘inherent’ desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than ourselves. Nothing plays a more important role than the power to refer to the local history through documents and archives. Since I experienced the foreboding feeling of estrangement, I will align myself with Donna A. Seger’s request.

  • Almquist Nanny

    Donna, What a clear recap of the history of the Phillips Library beginning in 1998. It only made it even clearer that what the Director and Board of Trustees are doing is not only totally wrong, terrible stewardship, and hopefully illegal enough that they can be stopped if not by persuasion, then by legal action. As I wrote earlier, I returned my PEM membership card along with a letter to the President and Board of Trustees, that I will never again support or enter the PEM until the Phillips Library is returned to its intended use as the de-facto Salem Historical Archives and Research Library.
    May shame rain down on the PEM’s Director and Board of Trustees.

  • Sabrina Bleecker Caldwell

    Your open letter is well argued and supported and evoke concern for everyone who values credible knowledge. We are now living in an age in which news has become partisan and opinionised, and subject experts are not trusted as much as celebrities. This will not last forever, but it is important we don’t lose access to the materials that ground the truth and the illuminate where we’ve been, otherwise we will not be able to find our way out of the current morass in future.

  • Edward

    the real issue here is the RIDICULOUS photography policy at PEM that is straight out of the dark ages: $1 per picture taken. How in the world are researchers supposed to adequately utilize these rich resources when they may only have funding for a few weeks of study in MA.

  • NortheyHouse tnshgpw2012

    That’s my daughter, Rachel Tonthat, in front of the Phillips Library. Seems only yesterday when Swiss photographer, Marianne Mueller, stayed at The Northey Street House B&B. She was really taken with the architect and history of Salem. She did a beautiful job presenting the historic material in a refreshing new way. The portrait of Rachel was actually a somewhat still video. Once in a while, her head would tilt the other way, very subtle movements.

    This kind of presentations or exhibitions is exactly what the PEM needs to continue to do with the Phillips Library Collection to engage the younger generations. Too bad the Phillips Library is not their priority at all.

    It would really be tragic come Salem’s 400 year anniversary for Salem to not have any of it’s history reside here in Salem, it’s home for over 100 years.

    Flora Tonthat

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