The Year of Lost Archives

I must interrupt my festive holiday posts to mark a somber anniversary today: a year ago a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum admitted that there were no plans to reopen the long-shuttered Phillips Library in Salem, and that its archives and texts were soon to be relocated to a consolidated Collection Center in Rowley, in response to questions from members of the Salem Historical Commission. This admission was historic in a dual sense: it concerned history, the collected history of generations of Salem’s families and institutions, entrusted to an institution which couldn’t even be bothered to announce their removal, and it marked a moment in which Salem’s historic identity could now be cast in considerable doubt. It also triggered a series of responses and events which revealed so much to me about how history–and access to history—is perceived and valued in Salem. I was going to write an anniversary post anyway, just to wrap up this dismal year, but then an extraordinary coincidence manifested itself, and now I have a comparative format for my retrospective review. It happens that not only has my adopted hometown lost its archives, the hometown of my youth is on the verge of losing its as well! I feel like the personification of some powerful archival curse.

York Archives

Essex Institute IncorporationMr. James Kences of York, Maine protesting the imminent removal of Old York’s archives to a collections center in nearby Kittery, utilizing the same by-law precedent that we’ve employed here in Salem. Photo of Mr. Kences by Rich Beauchesne/Seacoastonline.

This may seem like an apples and oranges comparison with the only link being my personal interest, as the Peabody Essex Museum is a large, multi-faceted and well-endowed institution of international stature and the Museums of Old York constitute a local heritage organization with far fewer resources, but I think there are some interesting contrasts, particularly in the words and actions of the interested parties. Salem (1626) and York (1624) are also both venerable colonial settlements, with historical influence beyond their municipal boundaries. The Old York move is mandated by the sale of an old bank building in the center of town for redevelopment: not only have Old York’s plans been completely transparent since the publication of its strategic plan in 2015, but its Director, Joel Lefever, publicly acknowledged that York residents had the right to “raise questions” about the relocation of the archives out of town and even applauded the colorful protest of Mr. Kences. Compare this attitude and these statements to those of the now-retiring PEM Executive Director Dan Monroe: There was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand (Boston Globe, January 13, 2018).

Salem Hex

Old York’s decision to sell a downtown administrative building to focus resources on its historic buildings further afield was dictated by economic necessity and made in collaboration with the Town of York, which is embarking on a York Village revitalization project; the PEM’s decision to relocate the Phillips Library was a choice, not a necessity, made in isolation and opacity. Several organizations which had placed items on deposit in the Library, including the Salem Athenaeum and the Pickering House, were not even notified that their materials were to be relocated out of Salem. It was also revealed during the many hearings before the Historical Commission following the December 6 admission that the PEM had failed to file a master plan with the city of Salem, contrary to municipal regulations. While Salem residents are always in the dark when it comes to the PEM; I do hope our Planning Department knows more!

PEM Expansion PlanA romantic rendering of what might have been—if the PEM had fulfilled its promises to develop the Salem Armory and preserve the Phillips Library: not sure about the new situation of the John Ward House but it’s been moved once before. Not sure of the source or date either–I found it unlabeled on social media. Obviously the PEM went in quite a different direction.

There has also been a stark contrast in the reactions of municipal officials in York and Salem. Apparently there is no avenue to avoid the relocation of York’s archives to Kittery for the short term, but both the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen seem committed to finding a way for them to return. In an article in the York Weekly by Deborah McDermott, Town Manager Steve Burns allowed that there was no place suitable for the archives in York at present, But long term, the town I believe has an obligation to the heritage of the town to see if we can do something. This does not satisfy the passionate Mr. Kences, but I would be thrilled to hear a similar sentiment spoken in Salem: an obligation to the heritage of the town. For her part, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll never questioned publicly either the preservation-in-Rowley vs. decomposition-in-Salem scenario sold by PEM or its place-detached vision of history, and celebrated the Museum’s “investment in history” at the opening of the Collection Center in Rowley this past July. I do hope that the Museum makes a considerable investment in Salem’s history in the forms of library staff and digitization: at present (and as has been the case for some time) its most essential materials on commercial and cultural encounters in East Asia, so very valuable for the understanding of both local and world history, are accessible only behind a very expensive paywall at the digital publisher Adam Matthew and so inaccessible to Salem’s residents—and Salem students. While Salem’s history has been packaged as a digital “product”, the old Essex Institute buildings which once housed it remain dark and empty.


There are also some interesting comparisons to be made regarding the quest for institutional and municipal vitality: the goal of both the PEM and Old York as well as their host communities. Old York’s archives are just that, historical archives, whereas the Phillips Collections of PEM constitute a large and multi-dimensional library, constituting myriad print and manuscript materials. It’s a bit difficult to see how the former collection could foster the development of a lively cultural community in York Village, but a Phillips Library returned to its original location could enhance Salem’s already vibrant cultural scene in many ways and expand its own community in the process. Libraries are meant to be used, and library collections are different than curatorial collections: the consolidation of both in a remote Collection Center–inaccessible via public transportation–may make sense from an administrative point of view, but it can only handicap the former in terms of its essential function. Just as I hope for more digitization of Phillips materials, I also hope that researchers are flocking to Rowley, but as yet I don’t see any evidence of the sorts of activities that are associated with other research libraries like those of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and (most familiar to me) the Folger Shakespeare Library: exhibits, events, brown bag talks, teacher workshops, crowdsourced transcription projects. It is early days for Rowley’s Phillips Library, so maybe these will come, but I believe such engagement would evolve far more easily in Salem’s Phillips Library, enlightening a dark stretch of Essex Street in the process.

Phillips last december

Anniversary 5In my open letter to the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum from nearly a year ago, I focused on Nancy Lenox Remond, because I wanted to emphasize the connection between place and history. I couldn’t imagine a better example of someone whose history was made by Salem and who made Salem’s history in return! Mrs. Remond and her husband John were the resident caterers at Hamilton Hall and also operated several other businesses in downtown Salem. There were organizing members of Salem’s African-American church and abolitionist societies, and they advocated successfully for the desegregation of Salem’s schools. They raised eight children in Salem, among them the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond, for whom a seaside park in Salem is named. Here’s a photograph of Mrs. Remond and the Lafayette plaque at Hamilton Hall–which references a famous banquet which she and her husband John prepared. I didn’t understand a year ago, and I still don’t understand now, why the records of the lives and work of these extraordinary people, and all of the extraordinary people who made Salem, have to be located in Rowley.

12 responses to “The Year of Lost Archives

  • az1407t

    Wow! I had no idea that the Essex Institute buildings were “dark and empty”. I thought the museum was using them for offices. Has the museum announced plans for these buildings? I hope they are protected as historic properties, so that the museum can not let them get run down and eventually demolish them, so they can construct some ugly building in their place. I have no confidence in their museum addition designs. They are ugly and do not add to the character of the surrounding area.

    • daseger

      They’ve been dark and empty for years, which is why I am confused about the lack of response on the part of city officials and tourism organizations in Salem. The PEM received permission to take down the “stacks” addition last spring, but no work has commenced. The buildings are protected, and I presume (hope) that now that the PEM’s new building down the street is nearing completion they will turn their attention to this “campus”.

  • Carol J. Perry

    In book # 8 of my Witch City Mystery series for Kensington, Final Exam,on page 223 my heroine, field reporter Lee Barrett is assigned to cover a protest march about ” the movement of some of Salem’s valued historical records from the Salem-based Peabody Essex Museum to a story facility over in Rowley, of all places–allegedly making them more difficult to access and less secure.” More on page 225. If you give me your address I’ll send you an advance copy. (Book will be released on Feb. 26.) My little contribution to the cause!
    Carol J. Perry

  • Nelson Dionne

    A great ,and timely article !

  • Jim Trumbull

    I’ve been quietly reading the various articles you have posted regarding the PEM, and with each entry, I feel a mounting sickness in my gut, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’ve made the decision to break the habit that for generations has meant ‘religiously and automatically’, gifting of my extended family’s remaining Salem artifacts to the PEM. This, until the unlikely day I get to read an entry of yours, exalting them for having turned the PEM back into the institution which was formed and was managed to exalt in Salem’s true history. In other words, probably never.

    My grandmother, Mary Delhonde Ropes, schooled me at an early age that it was my responsibility to support the ‘family’s museum’ as she called it. She took immense pride in knowing that the history and treasures of our collective family of Bertram, Ropes, Robinson, Trumbull, Pickering, Hunt, Dodge, Silver, Goodhue, Cook and others) would be protected and preserved and displayed as an homage Salem’s unique story. I personally gave her the approval to pass several significant artifacts and collections to the museum, bypassing my opportunity to hold them for another generation.

    I am not that old as to be considered a curmudgeon, or so I don’t believe. I understand that the PEM needs to remain relevant to attract memberships and capital, which means appealing to a larger audience beyond the descendants of Salem’s first families. But in my opinion, the actions you’ve described over the past year demonstrate to me just how far the leadership has strayed from their promises to Salem’s historic families, from whom their extensive collection of Salem’s history has been derived. I know what my grandmother was promised. Because I have many of his personal letters to family members, I know that John Robinson expected his extensive collections to be displayed and studied. Today, the John Robinson Room is long gone, and now I assume that so are these collections. I have no idea where his beautiful portrait has gone, though it was once given a place of honor due to his efforts to establish and maintain the Essex Institute.

    While I’m on this rant, let me confess that I was a fan of Elizabeth Montgomery’s character in Bewitched as a child! But as a great-grandson of Roger Conant, and a relative of Mary Osgood, I see that Salem’s elected officials have little interest in promoting the truth as to which witch is which (sorry), and why it matters, and whose statue has earned the right to grace the covers of their tourism brochures.

    Thank you for your diligence on this issue. I’m informed, largely due to your efforts. We know what happens when we forget our history…

    • daseger

      Thank you for this poignant comment, Jim. I wish I could say that I have exaggerated or mischaracterized the situation here, but I think I have represented PEM’s actions accurately over this past year. Nevertheless it does not give me satisfaction to read your comments–it makes me sad. I believe that I have come to a fair understanding of just how much your ancestors and other Salem people invested in the Peabody and the Essex Institute, and that investment has been my sole motivation this entire year. I really hope that the leadership of the PEM is reading and listening. The only hope I can give you at present, is that the CEO who directed this policy, Dan Monroe, is retiring, and new leadership may bring an honest appraisal of what has happened.

  • Anne Sterling

    Please Mr. Trumbull, will you make your concerns known to the PEM Board or President’s office soon. Your family deserves better than to have your beloved and historic treasures shunted off to a dark closet in Rowley without even the courtesy of notifying your family of the change. Is this against your families expressed and written wished when they deposited with the Phillips library to benefit Salem residents and history scholars? To prevent your grandmother spinning in her grave, and the Eliz. Montgomery statue from flying off on her broomstick to Rowley, we beseech you to let the PEM leadership know your they have violated your grandmother’s trust and her legal instructions. I quite shocked that the descendants of the Codfish aristocracy have remained so passive in this fight.

  • bonniehurdsmith

    Meanwhile — and we must always keep our eye on the prize — it seems to me that this is a good time to let folks know about what’s happening at Salem State Archives, the current and de facto collector of Salem history. They have become the repository of choice for businesses, organizations, and individuals who trust them and know that their material will be SAFE in their new, state-of-the-art facility in the Berry Library AND accessible. This includes “saving today’s material for tomorrow,” Nelson Dionne’s favorite expression.

    But here’s the problem. There is an indefinite hiring freeze on at Salem State until the Baker administration decides to fund public higher ed (no teacher contracts for a year, I think). The library is “down” seven librarians. The Archives has one part-time person, Jen Ratliff, who is processing Salem history and who is spectacular, and the occasional student intern or class project shows up, BUT, as you can imagine, there is nowhere near the people power needed to process what’s there now and keep up with what’s coming in.

    They need designated funding to pay for professionals to process Salem history (which includes digitizing). There’s no way to catch up and maintain Salem history at Salem State without more help.

    This would also allow the Archives to be open more regularly. Right now, it’s only open by appointment. For security reasons, at least two people need to be present in the reading room.

    Can we Friends of the Phillips Library keep our eyes on that prize while also sending large and small amounts of money to SSU Archives? THAT’S where our money is needed right now, rather than waiting for the wheels on Beacon Hill to turn and for positions to be filled — maybe.

    Thanks for your leadership, Donna.


  • Almquist Nanny

    Right on, Donna! Thanks once more for not dropping the ball on this outrage to Salem’s history and past. The Trustees of the PEM should be ashamed of themselves for allowing Dan Monroe to be such a poor steward of Salem’s past history and the Phillips Library which holds so much primary material on that history.

    My jaw dropped when I read, “Several organizations which had placed items on deposit in the Library, including the Salem Athenaeum and the Pickering House, were not even notified that their materials were to be relocated out of Salem.” It’s close to unbelievable and yet it happened.

    Keep up the protest and good fight and let us know how we can help. For myself I’ll continue my refusal to support the PEM through membership, financial donation, or attendance. I’ll pledge to contact each of the Trustees and let them know what I think of their irresponsible decision to move the Essex Institute’s collection to Rowley. They should be ashamed of themselves.

    May the new director to come have fresh eyes and a sense of responsibility on this matter.

  • dcp16

    Thank you for your continuing documentation of this travesty. The citizens of Salem and the world (as our history reaches all around it), along with millions of visitors, were betrayed by not only the PEM, but also the mayor, who all but blessed this move.

    We can only hope that others with more perfect vision find a way to rectify this in the future.

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