Nothing helps to define the distinguishing characteristics of where you live better than travel. I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past year, near and far, in the US and abroad, but generally to places which are identified as tourist destinations, like Salem. I’m always happy to return home, where I am more appreciative of Salem’s many advantages and resources, but also its lost opportunities, for lack of a better phrase. There are quite a few places that make do with with a lot less than Salem has: they might or might not have streets of historic architecture (though most of the places I visit do), they might not have a “marketable historic event,” they might not have a harbor, they might not have 100 restaurants, but they do have: 1) historical societies and/or museums that provide free exhibits and walking tours for the public; 2) museums that are actually museums–nonprofit institutions with collections and curators; 3) attractive and informative signage; and 4) a sense of pride expressed by effective stewardship of public properties—historical and otherwise. I think Salem could do a lot better; I think we need to step it up in these four areas in particular. I’m not sure how to do that, however, as I’m not really sure who is in charge of Salem’s tourism planning and administration. Free enterprise seems to reign over the city’s tourism, with private institutions taking primary responsibility for selling our city’s heritage, with a few very notable exceptions like the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the House of the Seven Gables. There should be some role for our city government, but I’m not sure if that role has been defined or exists, so I’m going to make my key points in the form of questions and just cast them out there into the unknown.
Why can’t we ditch the Red Line? I’ve written a whole post about this and my feelings have not changed, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but the Red Line–as one of the few truly public history initiatives visible in the city—makes Salem look regressive (I’m sure it must be based on Boston’s Freedom Trail, which dates to 1951! Come on, times have changed in historical interpretation! Where is our app?) exclusive (there is no African-American history on the Red Line; at least Boston’s Freedom Trail intersects with its Black Heritage Trail. Salem has no Black Heritage Trail and no markers on black heritage sites), and exploitative (because it’s really all about shops and witch “museums” obviously). Plus it just looks bad. We can and should do a lot better: the foundation is already laid with some great tours produced by Salem Maritime and Essex Heritage (here and here), among others. We just need to consolidate, repackage and go digital.
Is the Red Line going to take us across North Street to the beautiful Peirce-Nichols House? Of course not, sharp left to the Witch House, after we’ve just been to the Witch Dungeon Museum.
Why can’t we transform this beautiful Greek Revival courthouse which is currently empty into the Salem History Museum and Visitor Center? There is a nice display of placards providing an overview of Salem’s history called the Salem Museum at Old Town Hall and a Visitors Center with much more regular hours run by Salem Maritime in the drill shed of the former Salem Armory, but I think we need to consolidate these two services into one building and this former courthouse happens to be empty and in the possession of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). I’m sure the SRA wants to develop it–and its adjacent courthouse next door–but this would be a great spot for Salem to really own its history. It’s right across from the train station and its parking lot. Salem needs permanent and professional exhibitions of its entire history, including the Witch Trials, which has always been its biggest draw. Doesn’t Salem Maritime have its own story to tell? Why does it bear the primary responsibility for visitor orientation in Salem? We know that the Peabody Essex Museum is not interested in historical interpretation, but they might be persuaded to loan some things, as would the Salem State Archives (I think!) which has been collecting quite a bit of local history over the past few years.
Two empty courthouses downtown: can’t ONE play a key public role?
Why can the city of Salem regulate tour guides but not “museums”? Most historical interpretation in Salem is offered by private tour companies and private “museums” which are really not museums at all: they offer presentations and dioramas rather than collections and context. (This is not just my opinion! Check out reviews for the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Museum on Yelp or TripAdvisor: even the people that like these places say “this is not what you would think of as a museum.”) The City of Salem licenses tour guides, but anyone and everyone can open a museum. This seems like an inconsistent public policy regarding historical interpretation to me. The other issue with the “museums” and haunted houses is their seasonality: they can be absolutely deadening if situated in a central location, as is the case with the juxtaposition of the Witch History Museum, Count Orlock’s Nightmare Gallery and the delightful Witch Mansion or whatever it is called along central Essex Street. This is Salem’s main street and you can hear a pin drop on a Friday night as these places are shut up tight; I think the last two were open only in October even during the day–but as you will notice, the Red Line runs right by.
Thank goodness for Wicked Good Books and the Hotel Salem, otherwise there’s not a lot going on on the Essex Street pedestrian mall, day or night.
Why can’t we have consistent, attractive, and informative signage? And why do these private “museums” get to stick their signs on all over town on public utility poles?
Look at these signs! Clearly the owners of the Salem Witch Museum and Witch Dungeon Museum can just place signs wherever they like. I’m assuming the numbers on this last sign refer to the Red Line and (obviously) the Salem Trolley tour, another private purveyor of history in Salem. I think we need some contrast here, so here’s just one of a succession of well-designed signs I spotted around North Adams last weekend.
While I’m on the subject of signs, I would be remiss if I didn’t commend the City of Salem for putting up some lovely neighborhood and park signs—which they have—but the information presented on these signs has to be correct. I’m particularly concerned about the sign for the relatively new Remond Park adjacent to the Beverly Bridge. This is a memorial to the Remond family, a very successful free black family in mid-nineteenth-century Salem whose members advocated for school desegregation, abolition and myriad other social justice issues while operating several successful businesses. It’s great that they have a park! It’s great that this park is one of only two Salem sites on Tufts University’s acclaimed African American trail project. But the sign has the wrong information: Salem had a vibrant African-American population in the nineteenth century downtown; there was not “a large population of African Americans” who lived in this rather remote section of Bridge Street Neck. As if the location of this park wasn’t off the beaten path (Red Line) enough, Salem’s African-American population is marginalized geographically by this sign, just as they are marginalized (or omitted) from Salem’s history.
Bridge Street Neck was not “home to a large population of African Americans” in the 19th century: just check the city directories!
Why can’t we protect Salem’s sacred sites? Salem’s downtown cemeteries, especially the Old Burying Point or Charter Street Cemetery, are besieged during October: why can’t the gates simply be shut? I have seen terrible things in Charter Street: many tourists don’t seem to realize that it is a real cemetery rather than some sort of stage set. The City of Salem has an obligation to protect this sacred site, and it could do so by simply locking its gates. Salem’s Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street is always locked up; why can’t Charter Street be locked up for the month of October? This is a question that people have been asking for years and there is never any answer.