My Salem Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum has made an additional concession in the mitigation dialogue following their admission to the relocation of Salem’s historical archives to a “Collection Center” in Rowley: a presentation/exhibition on the “Salem (Historical?) Experience” to be permanently installed in Plummer Hall. This could be good news—-like everything else the devil will be in the details—but it in no way compensates for the removal of historical materials left in good faith to the care of the PEM’s predecessors by scores of Salem families. Still, Salem has always needed a proper Salem Museum, with texts, objects, and interpretations of key events and themes in its history presented in an installation that is both contextual and chronological. This could be an opportunity to have some semblance of that, as the PEM has wonderful curators and resources, but the institutional reluctance to actually showcase authentic Salem items—combined with the word “experience”—leaves me a bit worried that all we’re going to get is some sort of virtual presentation. Nevertheless I was inspired to put together my own Salem Museum, and here are its key components.

Salem Worlds: I would prefer a thematic presentation to a chronological one, but after teaching history for 20+ years I know that chronology is important—-people want to get the facts straight and in order. So I think I would use a “worlds” approach in which Salem expands from a tiny little settlement into one which is an important part of the entire world, and then create various other worlds which represent different aspects of Salem’s history. Worlds are a way to combine themes and chronology: we need to know about Salem’s experience as a colonial outpost of the expanding British Empire, its role in a world of Revolution, and its preeminence in a world of global exchange, but also about the worlds of ideas, work, and association which flourished within its borders. I’d like to flesh out the isolated world of seventeenth-century Salem and its environs that served as the setting for the witchcraft accusations of 1692 as much as possible, but also trace the legacy of the Trials through the evolution of the “world(s) of Witch City” from its first expressions until today. We need to peer into the worlds of Salem’s many activists—whether they were working for abolition, temperance, social reforms, or suffrage in the nineteenth century, or striking for more job security at Pequot Mills in 1933. I’d like to recreate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem world with texts and images, and also that of one (or more) of the lesser-known diarists whose memorials are locked in the Phillips Library. Different worlds could be explored in keeping with the PEM’s programming (I guess I have to make that concession).

Virtual is fine, but we need objects and texts too: I’ve been to quite a few city history museums (but unfortunately none on this list) and it seems to me that the mix is best. There’s always some sort of “orienting” video, so that might be the best way to deal with the chronology: I love the Museum of the City of New York’s Timescapes in particular. The only way we can create some semblance of seventeenth-century Salem is through cgi, and I cannot watch Pudding lane Productions’ deep dive into seventeenth-century London enough (and my students love it).

My Museum Timescapes

In this era of immersive make-believe, people crave authenticity, so we need to see real stuff too: personally, I’d love to see the 1623 Sheffield Patent, which granted rights to Cape Ann to several members of the Plymouth Colony and was contested by a representative of the Dorchester Company. This is a connecting link between Plymouth and the North Shore, and between Plymouth and Salem: as Cape Ann didn’t quite work out at that time the old planters migrated down the shore. Later in the seventeenth century, let’s widen the circle of persecution a bit by showing items that illustrate the struggles of Thomas Maule and Philip English—what an Atlantic world the latter represents! The widening world of eighteenth-century Salem could be explored through periodicals, ephemera, and any and all expressions of “trade port culture”, which the PEM loves (as long as the port in question is not Salem). Craftsmanship (or simply work), consumption, and activism are themes and worlds that can take us (or Salem) from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century and all the way up to today.

SHeffield Patent

My Museum Maule

My Museum Handkerchief PEMThe Sheffield Patent, 1623, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum; Title page of Thomas Maule’s New England Pesecutors Mauld, 1697; The Poor Slave (Dedicated to the Friends of Humanity), ca. 1834, copperplate-printed cotton, Boston Chemical Printing Company, The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum (Also in the Phillips Library). 

Art+History=Culture+Connections: The past five months—this entire semester!—has been like a Museum Studies course for me as I have been reading and exploring museums and historical societies around the world to see if I could come up with some compensation for the cultural deficit we have here in Salem, where the institution with most of the historical collections has withdrawn, leaving behind an infrastructure of largely commodified historical interpretation. There are many historical museums doing amazing things, but I’ve been particularly impressed by what I’ve seen (only online) at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. I spent a summer in Santa Cruz years ago on an NEH grant, so I have a fondness for that place anyway, but I love how this particular museum merges art, history, and community engagement into a mission that stresses relevance and region. It is an institution that is governed by the same “connections” mission that PEM references all the time, but their much stronger emphasis on place (in part through history) must make the pursuit of those connections more attainable and meaningful. As I haven’t been there, I’m not sure exactly how SCMAH presents the past, but my Salem History Museum would not recognize divisions between art and history, or material and textual culture. I’d have both, together, and a very particular emphasis on architecture. Lots of McIntire drawings, a whole gallery wall of Frank Cousins photographs, and some modern representations of Salem buildings to illustrate their (ever-) lasting impact. I would certainly have some of John Willand’s houses on a wall of my museum as I already have one on a wall of my house: each one is amazing, and I know he prefers a collective display. I would also feature some of the wonderful photographs of Salem captured by Salem instagrammers: more posts than #pem, just count the hashtags.

My Museum Little collage

My Museum collage

My Museum 30 Chestnut

Willand Gallery

Two sides of Salem artist Philip Little (1857-1942) from the PEM’s own collection: “Submarine Baseball” and A Relic of History, Old Derby Wharf, Salem, c. 1915; A Frank Cousins (18501927) portfolio; John Willand’s 30 Chestnut Street and Chestnut Street “Gallery”.

8 responses to “My Salem Museum

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for staying on the trail of the Essex Institute saga and keeping us informed. Let’s hope the powers-that-be tap your expertise if the Salem Museum project sees the light of day. You mentioned, “I’d like to recreate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem world with texts and images, and also that of one (or more) of the lesser-known diarists whose memorials are locked in the Phillips Library.

    Well, I am also interested in examining (when it becomes available) one of these -the John Danforth Diary, 1840-1871.

    It is described thus:

    “Scope:The diaries of this Lynnfield, Mass., man details a 31-year period of his daily activities, including notations on the weather, deaths in the community, local history, and births, deaths, and marriages. Multiple enclosures including loose diary entries.”

    In the past few years I have written dozens of articles in the Lynnfield ADVOCATE on the history of Lynnfield using the two town histories, Town Reports, reflections from the Lynnfield Historical Society’s Historical Bulletin, old newspapers, plus memories/photos from local residents. To my knowledge, there are few “primary sources” available. Thus, I was thrilled to learn that John Danforth’s Diary is preserved somewhere in the “Collection Center.”

    Do you think that this “lesser-known” diary will be digitized? The Danforths were among the first families of Lynnfield, but now seemed to have died out. My daughter’s house is on land originally owned by the family.

    I guess my story suggests that there are many folks, not just professional historians, waiting to delve back into the Essex Institute’s treasures…

    • daseger

      Of course there are, Helen. Many folks. Once I have more information, I will post something about the availability and accessibility of the library up in Rowley, which I’m not going to refer to as the Phillips—the Rowley Collection Center.

      But I have been in touch with a few scholars and librarians, and my answer to your question right now is NO. I believe that the digitization capabilities of the Rowley Collection Center are quite limited, and there is not a digitization plan yet.

      So I think you should make plans to go up there once it is open, which I am hearing will be some time in June.

  • Robin M

    Donna, I love this idea of a Salem History Museum blog post! In “my” museum, I picture a tea room (I drink tea, but could be a coffee shop with snacks, whatever) with tabletops made out of different Parker Bros. games (usable too!). I envision a display of all the “witch city” items and their advertisements (soaps, cleaning products, soda bottles, the spoons, etc.). I’d like to see maps of how the landscape changed and drawings/paintings/photos of all the houses that are no longer here. And an architectural display of actual chunks of columns, door fronts, cornices—especially ones that point out features that were from the Far East/East India captains’ travels that were incorporated into a unique Salem-styled home.

  • rdoconnor

    Hi Donna,

    One museum experience that stands out to me is the one we had in Bath, England, at the Roman Baths. The baths have a museum attached that has artifacts of the Roman period found in and around the baths. The audio guides were excellent, a great example of bringing history to life for children. There was an adult version and a kids version, and the kids version was narrated by several characters from the period, a wealthy girl, a slave boy, etc. The information was rich and the guide never talked down to children. Out of curiosity I listened to my version and then the kids’ version and was really impressed. Really worth looking into as a model.



  • Nelson Dionne

    I could comment on several areas that this blog brings to mind. I’ll restrict myself to one. I’ve been gathering all manor of “things” from Salem for 50+ years. I had a very large collection of advertising items from Salem businesses. Among the items were ashtrays, milk & various bottles ,
    coffee mugs, pens & pencils, knives, radio tubes, a variety of tools & items made in Salem, catalogs & advertising paper of all sorts,.I even have a collection of Salem bill-heads, & envelopes from the 1850’s to present. All of this generally overlooked history was donated to the Salem
    Old Town Hall Museum, about 2015 .
    By & large, it has gone unseen since. However, it has the potential for
    being used to bring some real interest to any display of many areas of
    Salem history.

    I look forward to my “Junque” going on display ASAP

  • Sandy Steele DeFord

    Yes!!!! PEM: Listen to Donna!

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