Daily Archives: August 29, 2018

What might have been: a Salem Tragedy

Things become crystal clear when you find yourself in a parallel universe and are able to discern what your universe lacks. Almost exactly a year ago, the Peabody Essex Museum notified researchers that the temporary Phillips Library location in Peabody would close for several months in order to move to a “new” location: this was confusing to many, as the Phillips had been relocated for the renovation of its historical buildings in Salem with PEM promises to return. But now this venerable library, constituting Salem’s major archive, was to move somewhere entirely new! Where? When? We didn’t know, but they of course did, and in December the admission finally came: the Phillips Library would be consolidated within a massive “Collection Center” in a former toy factory in Rowley, about a half hour to the north. Almost-unbelievable tone deafness on the part of the PEM leadership accompanied this………….removal every step of the way: here you can read the tale of the big move by a member of the Museum’s Collection Management Department who admits that for well over a year before it began, it took over her daily life. She knew, I guess everyone in the Museum knew, but no one bothered to tell the people of Salem.

PEM Collection Center Great HallThe “Great Hall” of the PEM Collection Center in Rowley.

So that leaves Salem archive-less, with no professional, nonprofit museum dedicated to collecting and interpreting its history, and a main street that is increasingly subdivided between the imposing architecture of PEM (yes, more space is needed for all those visiting exhibitions—that’s why Salem stuff must be dispensed to the north) and monster/vampire/witch wares. It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition really, made more apparent to me when I was home (in York Harbor) on vacation a few weeks ago. I’m not really a beach person, so I spent most of my time prowling around nearby Portsmouth, and one morning, my father and I were treated to a basement-to-attic tour of the Portsmouth Athenaeum by the Keeper of its collections, Tom Hardiman.

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Athenaeums are essentially private membership libraries which circulate books old and new among their members and highlight their collections through exhibitions and programs: the Salem Athenaeum certainly plays a central role in the cultural life of the North Shore doing just that. But over its long history, the Portsmouth Athenaeum evolved into something much more: its active collection policy transformed it into an historical society which serves not only its membership but also its community. It’s an archive, a research center, a library and a museum, all at the same time. Keeper Hardiman assured me that the Athenaeum collects the history of the region (except for materials related to communities like York, which have active historical societies) and consequently space is in short supply and a satellite location might be necessary at some point, but of course the Athenaeum will remain right where it has always been: in Market Square, in the center of Portsmouth. He showed me the Athenaeum’s very first book, and its most valuable, along with charters, newspapers, photographs and objects (including the the axe wielded by Louis Wagner in the terrible 1873 Smuttynose murders, which is kept in a closed cabinet), as well as all sorts of places–public and private—that revealed its inner historical-society workings. Throughout, in both words and places, I discerned respect and even reverence for the resolve of its donors and benefactors.

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Portsmouth Ath 8 Bookplates and books, newspapers, cyclists, and a working bulletin board at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

It was a wonderful tour which I enjoyed immensely but I came away feeling sad, as I realized that so many of the corresponding items that the Athenaeum was holding for Portsmouth were lost to Salem. Certainly the book collection of the Salem Athenaeum is impressive but it is not, and has never been, a historical society: it didn’t have to be. That’s what the Essex Institute, one of the predecessors of the PEM, was: for well over a century. This is a role that is denied steadfastly by the leadership of the PEM but decades of library acquisitions reports and articles in the Bulletins and Historical Collections of the Essex Institute contradict this opinion. The case is moot, however, as these collections, in the form of the Phillips Library, have been removed from Salem and I’m sure that the PEM is in the midst of purchasing stacks of non-Salem, non-historical titles so to obliterate the foundational nature of the Library forever. I could go on and on for quite some time about the tragic nature of this obliteration, but I’ve already done that for a year: what we need at this time is a constructive takeaway. I began this post with a discussion of disclosure because my time in Portsmouth highlighted the importance of planning and coordination for me, and the trigger effect that one institution’s actions can have on others. In the mitigation following the PEM’s disclosure that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, it was revealed that, contrary to city regulations, the Museum had not submitted a Master Plan. This is an institution that withdrew from its commitment to the Salem Armory Headhouse in the 1990s, ultimately determining its demolition, and swallowed a city street whole in the next decade: didn’t we need to know what it was going to do next? Don’t we need to know what it is going to do next? Salem trembles with the PEM’s every move, and Salem’s institutions could have compensated for its historical withdrawal if they knew it was coming: but they did not. Imagine a real historical museum in Salem just like that projected in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Site Plan and Environment Assessment published in 1991, the year before the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum into the Peabody Essex Museum. Though just one of several alternative proposals for the site, I’m sure that this “Derby Wharf Museum” failed to get much support because everyone thought Salem already has a maritime museum, but now that museum is gone—and so much more.

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Salem Willows Portsmouth AthenaeumSalem Maritime’s proposed “Derby Wharf Museum” in its 1991 Site Plan, one of several proposed alternatives for the Site which you can see here; there are even a few Salem items among the digitized photographs in the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s collection.


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