I was in several New Hampshire towns in the Monadnock region over the past weekend, and in each and every one of them there was a centrally-located History Center or Historical Society, open for business with timely exhibitions on view. These institutions were clearly both engaging and reflecting the collective curiosity of their respective communities, rather than just offering up a commodity or tablets (in whatever media form) of established facts that anyone can look up at any time. And once again I returned to Salem, a city that calls itself “Historic” but yet has no public history museum that is collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting its history and has experienced the removal of most of its archives by the Peabody Essex Museum, in an exasperated state. It’s not that there aren’t some great historical attractions and experiences in Salem: there are. But for the most part, Salem’s “history” is either siloed or for sale: there is no center, no apparent concern for the public record or the public memory, and an overwhelming emphasis on performance or presentation rather than participation.
Historical markers are everywhere in New Hampshire—and Salem’s Massachusetts Tercentenary markers are still among the missing; a Sunday afternoon exhibit/gathering at Hancock’s Historical Society.
I have two very specific cases in point to illustrate my assertions. We are in the midst of a national commemoration of World War I, inspired by the United States World War One Centennial Commission, of which all five living presidents serve as honorary co-chairs. All around me there are great local exhibitions on the Great War, from Hancock, New Hampshire in the north (see above) to Framingham and Lexington in the west, to Orleans on the Cape (where the only German attack on American soil occurred 100 years ago last week!) What’s happening here in Salem? Two very discreet digital exhibits, so discreet that I doubt very few people know about them. The Salem Public Library has several collections relating to individual Salem residents’ experiences during World War among their “Digital Heritage” items, including lovely silk postcards received by Anna Desjardins from soldiers stationed “somewhere in France”, and the Salem Veterans’ Services Department of the City of Salem actually has a “World War One Centennial Project” on the city website which I found while I was looking for something else entirely! Great resources here, including photographs of the two units in which Salem soldiers fought, individual biographies and obituaries, and newspaper clips, but where’s the engagement, and where’s the press? The introductory text references a collaboration with the Salem Public Library but I don’t see any links there, nor at the Salem Museum, Destination Salem, or anywhere else that keeps track of Salem events and initiatives, but I’m going to put it out there. This welcome but unheralded effort of 2018 contrasts dramatically with the reception the returning soldiers received a century ago when it seems like every parish and ward turned out for ceremonies and financed the monuments that still stand, so “time will not dim the glory of their deeds”. I hate to disagree with a monument, but I do think the glory of past deeds is dimmed if awareness of such deeds is limited to a name on a plaque.
The 101st Field Artillery in France, and just three of Salem’s World War I Memorials.
You can also find Salem’s City Seal on the city website, which is described as: a ship under full sail, approaching a coast designated by the costume of the person standing upon it and by the trees near him, as a portion of the East Indies; beneath the shield, this motto: “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum,” signifying “To the farthest port of the rich east”; and above the shield, a dove, bearing an olive branch in her mouth. In the circumference encircling the shield, the words “Salem Condita A.D. 1626” “Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1836. Actually the costume very specifically identifies a native of Banda Aceh, the capital city of the Aceh province of Indonesia, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. Salem’s monopoly of the pepper trade with this region initiated and defined its golden age in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and when the seal was designed in 1836 this connection was not just acknowledged, but sealed. And in the spirit of historical and cultural engagement, the Acehnese dance company Suang Budaya Dance will be performing the traditional “Dance of the Thousand Hands” at the (30th!) annual Salem Maritime Festival this coming weekend—on the very wharf where Salem ships once departed for their native land and returned to discharge “Salem Pepper”. The folks at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site know how to pay tribute to the past by engaging the present and the City of Salem should take a lesson: though perhaps war and trade are simply not hip, funky or witchy enough to attract the attention of City Hall.