Art vs. History: a False Dichotomy

Over the last three weeks, as I have listened to the public discourse surrounding the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant announcement that it was planning to house the Salem-dominant collections of its research arm, the Phillips Library, in a vast collections center (encompassing both archives and objects) in Rowley, I have heard a constant refrain: the PEM doesn’t want to be a history museum. They are only interested in art (That’s why they are taking/hiding our history away). I’m not sure this is entirely true, but if it is, it is a stance that is based on a false dichotomy, because these two disciplines are not incompatible or in competition: art is history and if done well, history is an art.

Art and History Vermeer.jpg Vermeer’s Art/Allegory of Painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum: featuring Clio, the Muse of History. 

Several PEM exhibitions in recent memory have featured historical components, from the wonderful Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style (2008) to Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (2015) and even the Victoria & Albert traveling show, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (2016-2107) featured a few placards on the regional shoe industry when it made its pitstop at the PEM. But I can understand why my fellow Salemites feel that their history is being ignored by the very institution that has the responsibility of stewarding it. The Museum seems to have an ever-increasing appetite for gallery space, always justified by its large collections, yet we seem to see more of other Museum’s collections in these showy spaces. The Phillips print and manuscript collections, along with all of those unseen objects, are now on a slow boat to Rowley: one wonders if it was possible to move the historic houses also entrusted to the museum whether they would be on their way too. I don’t really think so, but I like to force the connection between textual and material history.

ropes-renovMoving the Ropes Mansion back a few feet in the 1890s.

As I looked back at PEM exhibitions over the past fifteen years or so, all of which I have seen and enjoyed, I gradually came to an awareness that the PEM does indeed “like” history, just not local history. There has been a great emphasis on Asian history certainly, and European history, and Native American history, but local history, not so much. I wonder why this is so, given the museum’s focus on connections: doesn’t it want to connect with its local audience? All of its engagement initiatives seem to have been focused on entertainment rather than exhibits: the monthly Thursday PEM/PM events, free to all Salem residents, but ending this very month. Everyone says: I enjoyed it [insert exhibition, particularly blockbuster variety] for an hour or so, but that’s it. No need to go back again. I myself clung to just one poster in the recent Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style exhibitionBoston-published, depicting the watery grave of Lusitania victims.

pem-enlist-loc Library of Congress.

So let’s work with this image–its meaning and its power. We are in the midst of the centenary of World War I, a major turning point in world and American history. Museums across the country (and across the Atlantic, of course) have produced exhibitions focused on this epic event, including art museums like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The latter’s World War I and the Visual Arts encompasses all artistic mediums to present a cultural history of the conflict drawn from their own collection, while the MFA’s show focused on propaganda and recruiting posters similar to Fred Spear’s evocative Enlist above. Despite 18 boxes of World War materials in the collection of the Phillips Library (processed with the support of a federal grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission but currently inaccessible and undigitized), the PEM offered up shoes, wearable art, horror movie posters and ocean liners in the centennial year of 2017: all fun and visually-stimulating exhibitions, but can we really engage in a thoughtful exploration of the human experience through these topics?

Art and History HassamChilde Hassam, Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I see the PEM’s reluctance to delve into local heritage as tragic for Salem, which is left to the devices of market-driven Halloween “history”, but also for the museum itself, which is losing out on an obvious way to connect to its local audience on which its future is surely dependent at least in part—it can’t be all about big donors, can it? (Maybe it is). In its rationale for not reopening the Phillips Library in Salem, the PEM pointed to declining patronage by Salem residents, but this was surely a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by declining hours and programming based on the library’s collections. A reopened and revitalized Phillips Library reading room, serving as a nexus for introspective examinations of greater Salem’s experiences in the contexts of global, national, and local history, could serve as a draw for both locals and tourists. Even though history may seem “dusty” to some, the public’s interest in heritage is both universal and increasing: with many state and local history museums reporting upswings in attendance all over the country in the last few years and record-setting crowds flocking to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in just its first year. And here in Massachusetts, with a statewide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing in the works for 2020, the Museum–and its Library– in the midst of the other prominent Puritan colony will find itself very much in demand.

MA400-Mayor-Panel A panel of mayors, including Kim Driscoll of Salem, at the Massachusetts 400 Forum in 2016.

10 responses to “Art vs. History: a False Dichotomy

  • ninacohenenski

    Thank you for another thoughtful post, Donna.

    The PEM’s meticulous restoration of the Ropes mansion is an example of local history made interesting, personalized by a Salem family whose history ties to shipping fortunes, sugar and religious trends of 18th C. America. The furnished dining room has a breezy touch: a set of modern place settings inspired by china imports, as one of your posts shows.

    So the PEM can do local history. They just don’t want to. In 2026 we celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Salem’s founding. How can we recognize Salem’s bold leadership through the centuries if it’s in boxes?

    • daseger

      Agreed—lovely interpretation of the Ropes! Imagine if they put their minds to engaging and interpreting more of Salem’s history! What we need is bold leadership to convince them to do that NOW.

  • Almquist Nanny

    Once more you have written so well on the need to save the Phillips Library and its collections in Salem for the local as well a visiting public and researchers and the reasons why. How can we get the PEM director and Board of Trustees to listen?

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    By focusing on what is going on in Salem with the PEM I believe you are highlighting a trend that is taking place nationwide. Museums want sexy exhibits that catch the attention of people and media. However, much local history isn’t always “sexy” in the same sense that big-picture exhibitions about World War I, Civil Rights or other movements, events or trends are.

    Take Civil Rights: it didn’t happen in a single city at a single time, instead occurring over decades through the efforts of many across the country. If, say, a Charlotte, N.C., museum wants to hold an exhibition on its own Civil Rights efforts, it may be able to highlight a handful of individuals and events, but by merging that in with a much larger exhibition on Civil Rights in the U.S., or the African-American experience in the 20th century, it can put on a much larger production, which certainly gets a lot more attention, and money from big corporate donors. What’s often subsumed, though, is the local aspect. Eventually, many people in Charlotte, in this example, fail to realize the specific role their city played in the Civil Rights push.

    We’re moving more and more toward a homogenized, centralized view of history, with local history being left in storage in favor of national or international exhibits. And we’re all worse off for it because, as with the case of the Civil Rights movement, that drive came about across hundreds, if not thousands of towns and cities, not just in Birmingham, Selma and Atlanta, no matter how important the latter were. But fewer people are learning about what took place in the towns and cities they live in, and feel less of a connection to their local history as a result.

    This cookie-cutter form may make a big splash and bring in big donations, but it leaves everyone poorer, and most certainly those who appreciate and want to know more about their own area and its past, in the long run.

  • greenheron628

    Yesterday at the PEM, I stood in front of a pair of blue sneakers belonging to Georgia O’Keeffe; indents of her heels were made in the footbeds, raised outlines of her toes were in the faded canvas uppers, scuffs from the studio and desert walks were on the rubber soles. In the sixties when I was young, I wore pair after pair of these same sneakers during the summers that I learned about Georgia O’Keeffe. Until I saw those shoes, she seemed like a rock star. The shoes made her real. Imagine that. Keds sneakers, in a museum.

    I treasure the PEM and am proud to live in a city with a world class museum, a museum that offers substantive exhibits that attract visitors from all over New England and somewhat mitigates the overload of Halloween kitsch. The more people who are exposed to world art (and let’s suspend that old chestnut question about what constitutes art for a moment), the more people who are exposed to cultural celebrations of global beauty. Perhaps art and objects from China, Afghanistan, Korea, and Russia, as well as the eleven countries whose citizens are banned from entering the US would expand American world views about art and culture, perhaps even politics, beyond our New England shores.

    Here is the thing about art and history. We lose touch with both of these soulful things at our psychological peril. If George W. Bush had taken a painting class when he was a student at Yale, which has one of the most respected fine arts programs in the world, we might have experienced a different eight years of history. Ironically, he took up painting immediately after leaving the White House, and following a few years of lumpy kitten and dog portraits, acquired some real skill. Last year, he exhibited a compelling series of portraits of veterans injured in the Iraq war. Profits from the art and catalog went to military service initiatives.

    You are probably aware of the situation most world class museums are in–MoMA, The Metropolitan, the MFA, who exhibited guitars and Fredrick Remington cowboy paintings, and displayed an America’s Cup sailboat on the front lawn (not an easy scene for an art professor and SMFA alum to drive by every morning on the way to work). If we care about museums, one crucial way they survive is on visitors of every stripe, not just artists and historians and college-educated liberal arts majors, but people who perhaps view art as entertainment. I applaud the PEM’s mission to make art a vital part of the fabric of everyday life for residents and visitors alike. It’s a noble endeavor in these times.

    I likewise share and support your desire to keep the PEM library materials in Salem, accessible to residents. For more than five years, I’ve waited patiently to be able look at vintage photographs and history of my beloved little house. Hopefully, the PEM can be both an internationally renowned museum and a residential library. Yet if that cannot happen, I’ll happily drive to Rowley in exchange for the immense joy of being able to walk over for another look at Georgia O’Keeffe’s sneakers, as I have every PEM exhibit, and for free.

    Suzanne Barnes
    Professor, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston

    • daseger

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Suzanne; I simply do not understand why there has to be an exchange, especially for an institution as well-endowed as the PEM.

  • Rick Dodge

    perfectly said, Donna. I thought the McIntire exhibit was a high water mark. Ropes House is brilliant. Nathaniel Gould book is best in its field. When the shoe exhibit was on I kept on expecting to see the boots worn by Napoleon or at least some of the mid 18th century silk shoes worn by the women of Salem and Boston ( they own about 10 pairs ) Keep up the great commentary..! HNY

  • Bradford Green

    This is a very thoughtful, engaging and sobering article. It reminds me that so often we feel the need to goeksewhere to seek adventure and excitement when in fact we’ve not explored the adventure before our eyes. How many Bostonians have never embarked upon the Freedom Trail? And it goes hand snd hand with the exhaustive pursuit for globalism and the concomitant reality that we erase the meaning of culture by subjugating the very roots that bind us to a place.

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