Public History

I have to admit that, having written this blog for seven years (unbelievable–seems like a month!), an enterprise I undertook because I wanted to indulge my own curiosity but also learn to write less for an academic audience and more for the general public, and serving as chair of a department that has a very popular concentration in Public History, I never really understood what public history was until I became involved with this movement to resist the relocation of the Phillips Library away from Salem. Now I know that history is a commodity, for lack of a better word, that has limitless value, and also the power to unite all sorts of people: young, old, natives, newcomers, liberals, conservatives (well, this is Massachusetts) and those who fit into none of these categories. It’s hard to define this commodity which is also a force, because people have very different ideas about what history is: for some it is all about family, for some it is all about civic pride, for some it is about sacrifice, for others it is about heroism, for some it is about books, for others images, or things: for all, heritage. I’m used to presenting history, both here and in my professional life, but this has been a month of listening to people talking about their history. And with each assertion about their history, their power grew, eventually turning a one-way announcement (admission, really) into a two-way dialogue. Tomorrow night, we will see the very public acknowledgement of that dialogue at two events in two locales: a forum at the Peabody Essex Museum in which the leadership will lay out their plans for the (ware-)housing of the Phillips historical and literary collections along with all of the material objects not on view in a consolidated stewardship/storage facility in Rowley occuring at the same time as the Salem City Council will debate a resolution calling for the PEM to work towards “keeping Salem’s treasured history in Salem”.

Phillips Forum with border

Phillips Friends Letter with border

Phillips ResolutionFlyer for the 1/11 forum, position letter of newly-revived “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library”(which is so new that it is homeless but I think it is going to wind up here) & Salem City Council resolution (converted pdfs–sorry about the lack of clarity).

What a night! I am both excited and nervous, but ultimately grateful to be part of this community conversation about something that so many people recognize as important: and this very community as well. I will report back on the day after, and then I promise to move onto some other subjects, patient readers (although I suspect that this conversation will go on for some time).

Phillips mss447_b3f8_seriesi_womantwoboys Social ServicesOne of my very favorite photographs from the Phillips collections that I’ve found while DREDGING every and all online sources this month: from the anniversary of the Children’s Friends & Family Services, Inc. (Phillips MSS 447), 1839-2003, which began life as the Salem Seamen’s Orphan Society and has 54 boxes of records on deposit in the Phillips.


9 responses to “Public History

  • Cecilia Mary Gunther

    Why do they want to archive all this material elsewhere – to make room for something else? Terrifying to let it out of Salem – too much is lost already. Who are the custodians? Good for you all for standing up and saying no – often this kind of thing is done before it is found out. Down the road from here they (no-one is sure who) emptied a very old Catholic church of all its statues and relics and paintings (that the parishioners paid for over the years) and closed the church. Overnight. Banged a piece of paper on the door saying CLOSED. All their treasures gone, the placards that were below the donated pieces are now below empty walls. The priest went elsewhere. No information at all. Dreadful really. So I am glad you found out before your history was whisked away. Good Luck!! c

    • daseger

      Oh that has happened here in Salem and in the archdiocese of Boston several times! Heartbreaking! They say they want “offices” in these beautiful historic buildings, but the real issue is the expense and space needed for the proper care of these large collections. Yes, it is a public debate now, thank goodness! Happy New Year to you, Cecilia–hope all is well.

  • ornesquare

    Donna – i”m still not able to get out much. But i have something kind of rare, but which I think will help bolster your argument. iIt’s a Michelin guide to NewEngland from 1983 or 1982. I got it when I first moved to Salem. IN it, Salem gets 3 stars. Marblehead gets just one. 3 Stars is the highest rating.

    I understand that the PEM has changed it’s focus, I was there when it was happening. there was a “that was then this is now” attitude to promises made to the city – like say saving the Armory.

    I’m badly discredited now for a lot of reasons; it’s a pity because I was able to have some impact.

    I’ve been in touch with Robin Ellis, the actor, who was here making the Europeans _ he bought a flat from a friend of mine in London. He has fond memories of Salem “then”. Also, there was a color supplement which quoted P.D. James who visited Salem and just loved it – for Salem – history/ architecture AND as a walking city. i Think we are overwhelmed by riches – many don’t know how blessed the city is with its history and architecture. When working for the Peabody, I got to restore portraits of seacaptains, to walk by their houses, to see their tomb stones. We are so rich in history.

    There are a lot of people who are little interested, and many who view others as snobs, or as “not good enough”.. Seems we haven’t changed much since Hawthorne. Ages ago I was able to break through the barrier… got the police to really respect people who went to the museum. But that was a long time ago, and I’m sure that little hole I made has long since healed over.

    I am truly too ill to take on much, will only disappoint. But I’d like you to have the Michelin Guide. To my mind, when the Museum merger took place, there was an unstated agreement to be true to the nature of each institution. That has not happened. But who really owns the history of Salem? If not those who would curate it ? Is there a way to create a board of overseers? People who have the same goals – to keep Salem beautiful, to get her back to the place she deserves – right along side of Concord ? Newbury Port? I just heard the term “lowbrowism” – we suffer from that and from ignorance; those who take pride in ignorance – which to me is one of the worst sins for our Representative Republic.

    There is a lot I want to do, so pitifully little that I can do. My family is long in history – but with the exception of a few – did not achieve great wealth. 3 of my grandparents histories can be traced to the 1600s.. But they didn’t stay in Salem. My parents taught me not to be a “snob” but to recognize people for their characters. I have really done in my reputation here which I accept. But if I can help you in the background I will..

    I will leave the Michelin guide for you.. shortly.. either in the basket I use for mail, or between the two doors at #1 Orne Square. Will put it there now, you can pick it up whenever. I hope it helps.




    • daseger

      Thank you, Jean, that is very generous! I’d love to talk about this with you further whenever your are feeling up to it. I’m actually optimistic—you should be too!

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Recently I talked a person doing genealogy who mentioned a repository for Essex Institute materials somewhere in Peabody. Did I get that right? And if such a place exists in Peabody, how will it differ from the Rowley site?

    Keep up the good work. See you tomorrow night …

    • dccarletonjr

      You are referring to the temporary Phillips Library facility PEM operated up until the time they closed up shop at the end of August. It is from there that the materials are to be transferred to Rowley. The Peabody site was nothing to look at but certainly functional enough from a researcher’s perspective.

  • Helen Breen

    Thanks, folks, for the clarification.

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