Rolling in Their Graves

I promise: this is the last Phillips Library post for quite some time. It’s been six months since the Peabody Essex Museum admitted, under duress and only because they needed approvals from the Salem Historical Commission, that the Library was moving to a former toy factory off Route One in Rowley, Massachusetts. Since then there has been a public forum, lots of meetings, a succession of newspaper articles in the Salem News and the Boston Globe, a stern letter to the PEM from the President of the American Historical Association, and countless posts by me appealing, edifying, and scolding the Museum’s leadership. All to no avail: the Library–constituting a great part of Salem’s documentary history–is now in Rowley, and from what I hear (from a friend who is desperately trying to finish her Ph.D. dissertation–they didn’t tell her the Phillips was going to close last September either), is set to open sometime in June. Even the Google address (sort of) has changed, so that must be that, right?

Phillips Location

The address of the Phillips has changed but everything else remains the same: photographs of the interior and exterior, and its description: in the Essex Institute Historic District of Salem. If past practices are any indication, this half-correct entry will be up for quite some time: when the Phillips was moved to a temporary location in 2011 for the restoration of the building you see above, the address was never changed. And so I must say that the two men who are referenced in this entry—one visually and the other by name—are likely rolling in their graves after all that has happened. The photograph on the left is of Dr. Henry Wheatland (1812-1893) in one of the Phillips’ smaller reading rooms, around 1885. Dr. Wheatland dedicated his life to the Essex Institute, helping to found it through a merger of the Essex County Natural History Society and the Essex Historical Society in 1848, and serving later as the Institute’s Secretary, Treasurer, and President. As the finding aid to his papers in the Phillips Library asserts, Dr. Wheatland “devoted much of his life to ensuring that the Institute became a ‘permanent centre of influence for the enlightenment and instruction of the community'” and even continued to serve as its President after he was struck with paralysis at age 80, until his death. Wheatland was born in Salem and he died in Salem, and his will, like the wills of many donors to the Essex Institute and its library, left bequests to a Salem institution. I know he was referencing his desire that the Essex Institute’s library should be reference only in his 1893 will, but still: no books [should/to] be taken from the building except in extraordinary circumstances.

Wheatland collage                                                                                  New York Times, 1893.

The prominent and prolific Boston architect, Gridley J.F. Bryant (1816-1899), is another grave-roller, as he was the architect of the Italianate Daland house which has served as part of the Phillips Library in Salem for over a century and would certainly not want to be associated with the suburban industrial building that now constitutes the Phillips Library in Rowley. His name should be removed at once.

Phillips Library Rowley

800px-Bigelow_Chapel_-_080167pv One of Bryant’s more notable commissions: the Bigelow Chapel at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Library of Congress.

I can’t speak for all the people that put their trust in the predecessors of PEM, but fortunately it is a registered non-profit in Massachusetts and so its actions are subject to review by our Attorney General, Maura Healey. Several weeks ago a meticulous brief was delivered to her office formally requesting that the Public Charities Division review the actions of the PEM relative to the Phillips Library under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 12, Section 8H, regarding breaches of trust. The many “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library” who have emerged over these past six months are sending letters in support of this brief and its request for review, and you can too if you like: Office of the Attorney General/Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division/One Ashburton Place/ Boston, MA 02108.

Some other updates:

Contrary to what I reported here last week, the Working Group organized by Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe is still working: they will have more meetings. Their agenda still seems to be exclusively PEM-driven and they have a very odd understanding of what “collections” constitute, but they are still at work.

It looks like the votes are there for the Salem Historical Commission to approve the demolition of the 1966 “Stacks” building at the rear of Gridley Bryant’s Daland House. Everyone agrees that this space was insufficient to store the vast collections of the Phillips, and it is rather inelegant, as you can see below. When the library was moved in 2011 to a temporary location to accommodate the renovation and expansion of all of the Phillips buildings, it became apparent that this addition was essentially unworkable, given the integrated structure of its construction. The PEM leadership implied that they just learned this in 2017, and so were “forced” to abandon all of the Phillips buildings (and Salem) altogether, but we have learned of several mitigating plans from the intervening years, including those which specified the construction of a brand new “stacks” building. In any case, the present Phillips buildings are not ready to accept all the collections at this time, primarily due to the poor planning of PEM. Rowley can be yet another temporary facility for these materials, but we are continuing to work to bring them back to Salem.

Phillips Stacks The windowless “stacks” addition may soon be coming down. Salem News photograph.

And what about digitization? The fact that the PEM is at least a decade behind comparable institutions in the digitization of its holdings has become common knowledge: the institution itself has acknowledged its deficiency by including “digitization priorities” on the limited Working Group agenda. There is some progress: I noticed just the other day that several records of the Salem Witch Trials have been added to the limited digital collections of the Library. The bulk of Witch Trial records were digitized a decade ago by a team of scholars and have been available at a (much more contextual) site sponsored by the University of Virginia since that time, but there are hopes that the well-endowed PEM will someday provide a global scholarly community with more materials which will elucidate this often-told story, and so many more lesser-known ones.

I’m certainly moving on to other stories. After all, spring has finally arrived, the trillium are out, and there are places to go and more diverse and distant pasts to explore. If there are any new developments, I’ll post them here, but only if they are course-changing.

P.S. And thanks for your patience—especially those of you who are perhaps not quite so interested (obsessed) with this issue!

15 responses to “Rolling in Their Graves

  • az1407t

    If the stack wing of the PEM is demolished, do they have plans for a new addition? If so, I hope it complements the existing building with similar materials and style, unlike the horrendous additions that were done to the original Peabody Museum.

  • Bonnie Henry

    Donna, Are you around today to talk about the Phillips Library? Bonnie

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    • daseger

      Not today, Bonnie–we’re in the midst of exam week. But I have reserved tomorrow for gardening! Pop over the fence (or come around).

  • Isabella Jancourtz

    So glad the AG will be reviewing this matter. Hope she intervenes!

  • Anne Sterling

    My major concern is that once these collections are “digitized” that the public for allowed free access to the digitized versions. Most museums sell (license) their digitized content to databases, and guard this source of income very jealously from any copyright infringement. I know because I buy and sell licenses for digitized content professionally, including art work from various museums and estates of artists. It is extremely lucrative! This is my prediction for where 400 years of Salem content is headed. The PEM has only stated it will be for free to Salem residents using the kiosks at the Reading Room. Every thing else will be behind paywalls. Please understand what “digitization” actually means.

  • Stephen Truncellito

    Thank you for another insightful post.

  • downeastdilettante

    Post about it as much as you like. I have been dismayed and perplexed and fascinated by the PEMs determination to be odd, disappointing, and generic, and by the bizarreness of their plans, and their determination to continue, in the face of logic, or community displeasure. Keep up the fight.

    • daseger

      Thanks–but I need to move on in this particular forum. For my sanity! And I think I’ve written as much as I can that is critically constructive: I don’t want to just be angry and appalled. Which I am. But the fight is definitely continuing, no worries!

  • Nanny Osborne Almquist

    Thanks so much for this most recent update. I will keep my fingers crossed and write the AG when I return from vacation to encourage her to take up this cause on behalf of the citizens of Salem and all of us who do not live in Salem but have ties to the city and have family papers that were entrusted to the PEM or earlier Essex Institute. As long as I know that you’ll report any truly new news on this subject, I’ll look forward to your moving onto other items of Salem and/or historical interest. With much appreciation,

  • Brian Bixby

    This specific archive is of little direct interest to me, yet I endorse your spending as much time on the blog going on about it as you have.

    Museums and archives exist to serve the public. While the sad truth is they need to make money to maintain and improve their collections and attract visitors, their number one priority should be granting access to their collections.

    A museum enlivens the public sphere by presenting its collections in an intriguing and educational form.

    A museum helps advance knowledge by participating in the scholarly community’s research and publication of material related to its collections.

    Any museum or archive with a local focus, as the Essex Institute once had, has a responsibility to engage its local community with both its exhibits and scholarly work, so that it will gratefully receive community support and continue to enhance its locally focused collections.

    From all you’ve written over the last several months, PEM has emphasized the first of those these three missions, while not emphasizing or even neglecting the other two. So you’ve a right to take issue with them.

    I’ve enjoyed thinking about these matters in light of your blog posts. I hope others have been inspired by them to look at their own local museums and archives.

  • Turning Dead Puritans into the Mighty Dead: Redefining Salem | Letter from Hardscrabble Creek

    […] Although no documents or artifacts from the witch trials are on public exhibit in Salem itself, thanks to the policies of the Peabody Essex Museum, which has many of them, there is a digital archive online at the University of […]

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