Caretaking and Curating

As frustrating as this past month has been with the prospect of Salem’s history being extracted by the relocation of the Phillips Library it has also been interesting, as I dove into the depths of its catalog so that I could develop a full appreciation of what we will be losing. I’m not an American historian so it was never an essential repository for me, and the life of this blog roughly corresponds with its closure. When I first moved to Salem I would research house histories and a few other things at the Phillips, but I was never truly aware of how rich and vast its collections were until just this past month: now I am awed. And as I discover and rediscover these holdings, I keep coming up with questions about their utility and accessibility: the slow process of digitization at the PEM remains confounding, but now I’m wondering if there is even an institutional interest in these materials. There is no question in my mind that the PEM is a responsible caretaker of its Phillips collections, but is there, or will there ever be, any enthusiasm for their interpretation? Historical records are not preserved merely for the sake of mothballing: they need to come alive through ongoing interpretation and curation. According to their messaging, the PEM hopes to attract scholars to its “state-of-the-art Collections Center” in Rowley via its digitized catalog, but does it have any interest in curating its own collections?  We all thought that the last library exhibition, 2011’s Unbound: Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM, was meant to tide us over until the reopening of the Phillips in 2013, but perhaps it was indeed the last library exhibition.

Libraries comparable to the Phillips, as well as those with far less resources, have presented wonderful exhibitions over the past few years, both online and in their reading rooms. In lieu of the lists of books which I usually produce at this time of the year, I thought I’d list some library exhibitions from the recent past and present, set forth for the purposes of comparison and perhaps inspiration.

John Carter Brown Library, Global Americana: The Wider Worlds of a Singular Collection (2017). Given the PEM’s global interests and the nature of their collections, a similar exhibition would be easily within reach, really popular, and a great teaching resource. We’re applying for an NEH grant on the trade between Salem and Spain at SSU, so this particular exhibit item, in which a very young nation assesses its trade, caught my eye—but it’s probably the least colorful item in the exhibition.

Curatorian Global Americana JCB

Secretary of State’s Report on the Cod and Whale Fisheries, 1791, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

 

American Antiquarian Society, Louis Prang and Chromolithography. Artist, Innovator, and Collaborator (2015). This exhibition–archived online–features several works by Salem-born artist Fidelia Bridges. The PEM has some great lithographic images, including an amazing Prang process proof that was featured in Unbound—it was really the highlight of the highlights.

Curatorial Prang

L. Prang & Co., “Dipper missing,” Louis Prang: Innovator, Collaborator, Educator. American Antiquarian Society.

 

Harvard University Map Collection, Pusey Library, Look but Don’t Touch: Tactile Illusions in MapsEveryone loves maps, and the PEM has a great collection, especially of local maps. A chorographical exhibition would be very interesting, but perhaps a bit too local for the cosmopolitan PEM.

birds-eye-eastern-railroad

“Bird’s-eye View of the Eastern Railroad Line to the White Mountains and Mt. Desert.” Boston: Rand Avery Supply Co., 1890. Harvard University Library.

 

Delaware Art Museum, The Cover Sells the Book: Transformations in Commercial Book Publishing, 1860-1920 (2017). A wonderful exhibition of notable bookbindings in the collection of the Museum’s Helen Sloan Farr Library & Archives. Thanks to the Phillips librarians’ tweets, pins, and instagram posts, we know that they preside over a treasure chest of beautiful bookbindings, and could easily mount a similar exhibition (or three or four).

Curatorial Del

Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum.

 

Baker Library, Harvard University Business School, The Art of American Advertising, 1865-1910 (ongoing). This digital exhibition of American advertising ephemera is an amazing resource that I visit often. Given the Essex Institute’s all-encompassing policy of collecting old bills, letters, and account books, books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, directories, etc…in fact, all articles which now or in the future may throw light on our history, or manners and customs”, there is no shortage of similar materials in the Phillips Library.

Curatorial Baker

Famous (or infamous) “Antikamnia” Skeleton Calendar for 1901, by Louis Crusius, a St. Louis pharmacist and physician. Baker Library, Harvard University.

Phillips Ephemera

Merrill & Mackintire Calendar for 1884, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

 

And finally, photography, and a plea. The Phillips collections include the photographs and papers of two local photographers who established national reputations over their careers: Frank Cousins (1851-1925) and Samuel V. Chamberlain (1895-1975). While many of their photographs were published over their lifetimes and after, others remain entombed in the Phillips. Photography lends itself to digital exhibition particularly, so I’m really hoping that the PEM can release some of these images in that (or any!) form, forever.

Chamberlain collage

Samuel V. Chamberlain at work in France and New England, Phillips Library MSS 369, Peabody Essex Museum.

 


7 responses to “Caretaking and Curating

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thank you for yet another informative piece on the thorny issue of the Essex Institute’s “transition” to inaccessibility for the wider reading public.

    “… but now I’m wondering if there is even an institutional interest in these materials. There is no question in my mind that the PEM is a responsible caretaker of its Phillips collections, but is there, or will there ever be, any enthusiasm for their interpretation? Historical records are not preserved merely for the sake of mothballing: they need to come alive, through ongoing interpretation and curation.”

    You pose an excellent question.

    All the best for the New Year and beyond…

    Like

  • upatthevilla

    Great ideas, Donna. I hope the PEM will see the value of such exhibits. You’ve provided an excellent roadmap . . . Happy New Year! Linda

    Like

  • marybryne

    Donna- You are always such a wealth of info- and always opening new doors on ways to treasure what is right in Salem. Is there an active “movement” of sorts to work with the PEM around preserving these artifacts?
    Is there someway SSU et al. could play a role to preserve the Phillips?
    A town-gown effort- would need deep pockets?
    Thanks for this wonderful blog.
    mb

    Like

    • daseger

      Oh thank you Mary, I am trying! There’s a big movement here in Salem and a Save the Phillips facebook page. We’re all waiting for the Jan. 11th forum to see if the PEM will make any movement. After that, I’m not sure. SSU keeps getting mentioned but I’m not sure what role it could play.

      Like

  • dccarletonjr

    Dear Donna:

    Yet another fine post on PEM and the Phillips–its really unfortunate that their curatorial priorities have so little room for sharing what’s in their own collections! As your examples show, it’s not that difficult to mount rotating exhibitions showcasing various segments of a library’s special collections on an ongoing basis.

    And thanks for the “shout out” re: the Bilbao project–the Jefferson fisheries abstract is very a propos.

    You will note that Spain is listed as taking 19% of total dried fish reported on the Abstract, and the lion’s share of that was Essex County cod headed to Bilbao!

    Like

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