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.

Portsmouth Ath 12

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Portsmouth Ath 9

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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.







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.

Derby Wharf Museum collage

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.

22 responses to “What might have been: a Salem Tragedy

  • Chris

    Donna, is the ‘Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Site Plan and Environment Assessment’ available online?


  • Brendan Davis

    Always great to get reliable news on these sorts of developments from you, Donna. I like Halloween as much as the next person, but I do wish the city took its history a bit more seriously. Me and my wife went to the Salem Witch Museum a couple of years ago, and it was pretty terrible (it was fun like a Hammer movie, but not very informative and at times blatantly misleading). It is a shame to see the PEM go in this direction. Is it possible people could start a new museum or library, more seriously dedicated to Salem’s history? Also, does the Danvers library have any relevant archives (at least from when it was Salem Village) or was all that moved to the PEM?

    • daseger

      Hi Brendan! The problem is that the PEM has SO MUCH; it’s hard to start from scratch. And the PEM has the resources to care for these things too; which they do very well. Yes, there is a Danvers Archives and town archivist, Richard Trask–both are great resources.

  • dccarletonjr

    Dear Donna: That 1991 SAMA doc you reference toward the end of your post is fascinating–look at the life that was proposed to be brought to Derby Wharf!–but the images are almost impossible to view. Can you post better versions or otherwise provide access to that study? Thanks!

  • Anne Sterling

    You go girl!

  • Rod Kessler

    Thanks for being our community’s voice in this

  • FairytaleFeminista

    History is so important yet so easily forgotten when it’s not readily available. It seems criminal for Salem, a place with such rich and far-reaching history, to have lost so much history.

  • Tamara Gaydos

    Why are you so “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”? As the archivist responsible for bringing in new manuscript material, I have continued to collect Essex County history for the past 11 years. This summer we received two wonderful donations; papers of the ship Amethyst and an Ipswich man’s papers. These are cataloged and available to the public. We also purchase books to support the museum curators’ research for their exhibitions. Please stop spreading false information.

    • daseger

      I am not spreading false information. The description of the Phillips Library’s holdings on the PEM website has changed over the past year when compared with previous years and I assume that this description–which is PEM’s own and not mine–reflects the future orientation of the institution. I am glad that you are continuing to collect Essex County history; I am referring specifically to Salem items here, which are the core of the historical collections and my central focus, of course.

  • Elizabeth Clark Morris

    I grew up experiencing the wonders of the

  • Elizabeth Clark Morris

    In the early 60’s. It was magical environment for me, nuturing my love of the local and exotic history of the world. Displaying and relaying the sea going accomplishments of our daring captains and explorers in the name of commerce. Placing Salem on the world stage and would be nothing without their contributions. The 20 years have deminished that history due to monetary influence + agenda of foreign + corporate support. It’s identity has been hijacked and trivalized into a pop culture art museum to appeal to tourists.

  • Charlie Wainwright

    I have done research in both Portsmouth Athenaum and Philips Library. Philips’ collections need to remain in Salem.

  • Brian Bixby

    I’ve recently been reading a material-culture oriented history of Britain in the post-Roman pre-Conquest era. (It was written by the outside reader of a friend’s early English lit. dissertation at BC.) And I’m writing a message on a blog. I’m trying to square those two things with this problem of what’s happened to Salem’s archives.

    My younger academic friends live on the net and the cloud. If you can’t get PEM to bring the archives back, can you at least get them to digitize them faster? I know that’s not everything; in fact, their doing that could be used as an excuse never to bring the physical objects back. But sometimes the best way to get some cooperation is to offer alternatives, knowing that either is better from your perspective than the current situation. Would going after PEM for the collections or the digitization of the collections, be a fruitful approach?

    Just a suggestion, Donna. I’m not in the thick of the fight and don’t know the politics or resources. But your despair, understandable, at what’s happened, begs for some form of relief.

    • daseger

      Oh thank you, Brian: I didn’t realize I sounded quite so desperate! I’m really not. I’m just mad that this happened, and especially HOW it happened. And there is a long pattern of behavior by the PEM that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. We are also coming up on the one-year anniversary when everything was set in motion so I think I’m memorializing too! But actually, I do have some hope for the future based on some statements regarding digitization: I do not doubt that the Library’s leadership and personnel, who are all professionals, are aware that their materials are not as accessible as those in other similar libraries and would like them to be more so. I don’t really know why the pace of digitization has been so very slow at PEM, given that it has vast resources, but I think this year’s “focus”, for lack of a better term, has raised the general awareness of it.

      • Brian Bixby

        Perhaps a poor choice of words on my part; “outraged,” “betrayed,” and “bitterly disappointed” would perhaps have been better.

      • daseger

        Going back to your original comment–I have to tell you that I feel sorry for those historians whose work is based on the collections of the Phillips–not only were they shut down for almost an entire year, but so little is available online (except behind a paywall at Adam Matthew, which our university cannot afford). By contrast, I’m on sabbatical this semester, working on TWO projects, and while I’ve done some archival research for both the vast majority of it can be done online: and I’m an English historian!

      • Brian Bixby

        Sigh. Online archives and their costs will be an ongoing battle, just like academic journals.

      • daseger

        Oh definitely.

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