History is not a Spectator Sport

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.

WOrld War Jaffrey

World War Jaffrey 2

WOrld War HancockHistorical 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.

EPSON scanner image

World War 101stThe 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.

Active Sport Salem City Seal

13 responses to “History is not a Spectator Sport

  • fbradking

    Why indeed DOESN’T Salem have a public historical society, now that the PEM/Salem archives are MIA. We were just in tiny little Georgetown, Maine, and even there, you will find a lovely little historical society and plenty of information about this town. Perhaps this is a new challenge for Salem? Thanks for giving it a public airing, Donna!
    Francie King

    • daseger

      I know–across northern New England you find historical societies in every little town! During the long absence of the Phillips Library, a Salem Historical Society did form and is active, but of course it has a tremendous disadvantage as PEM has all the stuff!

  • Judy Smolk,descendent of Rebecca Nurse

    My family visited Salem July 20-26, 2018, after 2 years of planning. We were interested in the history,, as we are descendents of Jacob Towne and Rebecca Nurse and Mary Eastey are great-aunts. We knew the town would be a mixture of authentic history and prevaricated witchcraft. I’m sorry we didn’t have a historical society to visit. The guide on the Trolley was a retired teacher who emphasized eras of history as much as she could. The Memorial to those hung (at the cemetery) is top quality and seemed to be drawing visitors. The Trolley guide could have emphasized the site more pointedly. Yours is the only blog I follow. Keep us the good work!

  • dccarletonjr

    Another fine blog post, Donna, and thanks very much for working in the plug for the impending performance at the Salem Maritime Festival of Saung Budaya!

  • az1407t

    Governor Baker approved transfer of the brick Victorian era courthouse building on Federal St. to the SRA. I hope the city doesn’t let it remain abandoned and fall into disrepair. That building has a lot of character. I suggest that part of that building would make a good home for the historical society.

  • FairytaleFeminista

    Salem is the perfect place to embrace its history more fully and be more like Williamsburg, VA. I’m heartened that people like you really care about preserving history.

    By the way, I nominated your blog for the Mystery Blogger Award, but there’s no obligation to participate.

  • Christopher Hyland

    I learned about the Salem seal when I asked my father about the figure on it, he telling me that it depicted a man from Asia, my later learning about going to the far coners of the earth, something that inspired me to be a Salem merchant, not for a moment feeling such a goal was out of context, as all was still alive, however in slumber. CH

  • Almquist Nanny

    Thanks again for your post and pointing out the sad fact that Salem no longer has a Salem History collection in Salem and how one is needed. I am still reeling from PEM’s decision to move the Phillips Library collection to Rowley.

    I love the above comment about Salem’s working its way to something like Williamsburg which I visited for the first time this spring and loved. The original buildings, Salem has lots, the costumed interpreters, Salem could have some (that aren’t in the various witch & pirate “museums”) and the fabulous museum, Salem did have it in the PEM, but it’s questionable now, are all things Salem could have and could work towards, but probably without the PEM’s help.

    While driving to Ipswich from Belmont today, I passed the exit to 114 and Salem, and wondered that in going forward, who is going to give their Salem family or business archives to the PEM. I sure wouldn’t.

    I just checked the PEM/Phillips Library website and used the catalogue search to look up the “Machado Family”. NOTHING came up. My Aunt Liz Osborne gave the PEM this family archive in 1998 and it is still uncatalogued and unavailable. I then looked up “Franconia Iron Works”, again nothing. The old card file in the Phillips Library had cards under both these subjects. We truly have lost somethings. They may eventually appear, but I’m not holding my breath or hopeful.

    • daseger

      I know–and I’m so sorry; I can’t imagine what it must be like to have donated family papers or items only for them to be unaccountable or inaccessible. I’m still on the trail–and still pestering the AG. But we do need to look forward too: your comment about where our current history is going to end up is spot on.

  • Helen Breen

    Again, Donna, you make an excellent point.

    “…the 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 …”

    Sleepy little Lynnfield with a population of about 1,100 in 1918 saw fit to erect a large freestanding plaque containing the names of some sixty servicemen serving “Over There.” This memorial “Tablet of Honor” was dedicated before the Armistice on October 17. Unfortunately, no one seems to know its whereabouts today since it was located near the old Route 1, an area totally obliterated by the widening of “the Pike” and the construction of Route 128 years later.

    The heroes were feted the following July 17 with speeches, concerts, sports and an enormous picnic with dancing at “Hap Ward’s estate” in South Lynnfield.

    Truth be told, I guess we must concede that the Brits take the cake when it comes to memorializing the Great War. But that’s another story…

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