Losing our History? Two Years Later……Where are We with the PEM?

Two years ago tomorrow,  the temporary location of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum shut down rather abruptly with a succinct notice of when it would be reopening but no reference to where. As the Library is the primary repository of documents relating to Salem’s history, there were concerns among scholars (including a friend of mine who was writing her dissertation based on materials in the Phillips and was quite suddenly shut out), but I don’t think the general public was too concerned: increasing inaccessibility in terms of hours–and then location—had been the trend for about a decade. I had never really depended on the Phillips for research or teaching (only this blog) so this was a big wake-up call for me:  I started thinking, what if it is not coming back? And then a few months later, in early December: the big non-announcement at a meeting of the Salem Historical Commission. The Phillips Library of Salem was no more: all of its holdings would be deposited in a giant Collection Center in Rowley, a half hour to the north. The special library—consolidated from collections of both the Peabody Museum and Essex Institute and housed in the spectacular purpose-built Plummer Hall on Essex Street—would now be part of a much larger modern warehouse of texts and objects located on a commercial strip of Route One. An Indiana Jones image formed in my mind, and the contrast between the genteel, accessible Plummer Hall and the post-modern former toy factory seemed too cruel, even discounting the distance factor.




Early 2018 was all about resistance and defense: there was a very dramatic public forum at the Museum during which then-PEM CEO Dan Monroe justified his decision according to the priority of preservation: it was impossible to house these materials in Salem due to the deficiencies of the Plummer and adjoining Daland buildings and there was no other sufficient space in the city.  The “preservation vs. location” argument is still authoritative: with no discussion of why the PEM did not use the substantial monies donated to it for the library to improve and expand these facilities in Salem. Also still with us is the conflation of objects and texts, justifying the move to the Rowley storage center; the Phillips Library literally gets lost in this configuration. There was lots of press coverage in January, 2018: in both the Salem News and the Boston Globe, where a front-page story included the quote below from Mr. Monroe of which I just can’t let go. A “Friends of the Phillips Library” group, established right after the December 2017 Historical Commission meeting, expanded its presence on Facebook and eventually launched its own website, which remains the essential archive of this story.

PEM billboard

pem cover (00000003)

The official way forward seemed to be through a “working group” established by the Mayor of Salem, Kimberley Driscoll, and Mr. Monroe and including members of the city’s heritage organizations, most of which (with the exception of Historic Salem, Inc. and the Salem Athenaeum) were silent during the uproar and remain so. Almost immediately the PEM announced a compromise: a reading room would be reinstated in Plummer Hall (although what would actually be in this reading room is still unknown), a Salem history exhibit installed next door, and rotating exhibits of Phillips Library materials would be installed in the main museum buildings down and across Essex Street. I don’t think we’ve really moved much beyond this agreement, but there were also discussions about digitization, as the focus on the historical collections revealed just how far behind the PEM was in such initiatives, despite misleading news stories to the contrary. Once the library collections were moved to Rowley, digitization of some of the Phillips’ most popular items began, and consequently we can now see Frank Cousins’ photographs of Salem in the 1890s at the Digital Commonwealth and a variety of interesting texts at the Internet Archive. I give all credit for this ongoing development to Collections chief and Library Director John D. Childs, as I remember him stating that digitization was a priority at the January 2018 forum, while Dan Monroe would only offer that it was “expensive”.

Cousins Kernwood

Witch of New EnglandEntrance to the George Peabody Estate, “Kernwood”, in North Salem, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth; just one Phillips text at the Internet Archive.

And that brings us to the biggest development in these two years: the retirement of Dan Monroe, effective this past July. The new director of the PEM, Brian Kennedy, is not only an experienced museum administrator, but also a scholar, who began his first day at the Museum with a staff meeting in East India Hall referencing the vision of the founders of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. This was encouraging to those of us on the outside, as the founders were overwhelmingly Salem men who believed that they were contributing to a repository of Salem history and culture, but we must remember that Mr. Kennedy is learning the lay of the land and that only one trustee on the PEM’s Board is a resident of Salem. The will of the founders—and successive donors—has always been the most pressing factor in my mind: I asked Mr. Monroe about “donor intent” at the January 2018 forum but he expressed no concerns. However, I’ve heard many, many, many concerns here (and in emails) from many of you. Both founder and donor intent can rise to the level of legal action, of course, and are administered within the purview of the office of the Attorney General. Very soon after the “non-announcement” of the move, we found the Essex Institute’s incorporation charter from 1821, which asserted specifically that its “cabinet” be situated in Salem. We assumed that this article was made null and void years ago, or at the very least through the merger of the Institute and Peabody Museum in 1992, but apparently that is not the case.

Essex Institute Incorporation

And so at the invitation of Mr. Michael Harrington, former Congressman and present owner of the Hawthorne Hotel who has taken a very active interest in this “case”, a group of concerned citizens, heritage professionals, and local political leaders met with Attorney General Maura Healey and her staff this past eventful July. It was a great meeting to which I was privileged to be invited. Ms. Healey listened intently to us over several hours, and explained the process by which the PEM has to petition the court to be released from the above article, a process that is overseen by her office. Apparently the PEM has not initiated this process (at least formally) yet, but can at any time, and presumably will (although they haven’t indicated that they were bound by any restrictions to date, so I’m wondering if things will just continue as they are). I voiced all of the concerns I’ve written about and heard here at this meeting, as well as my belief that the removal of the Phillips Library will cause economic harm to Salem over the long run, as the city has no professional historical society or museum to take its place. When history is only for sale, money determines everything: the topic, the take, the truth.


I’m not sure what will happen now; obviously the Attorney General’s office is invested in this issue but it has been for some time. The Peabody Essex Museum is focused, with good reason, on opening its brand new wing at the end of September and branding itself as the #newpem. No doubt Mr. Kennedy is preoccupied with that, and with learning all about his new institution. Not only has the new wing been completed recently but substantive renovations to both the interiors and exteriors of the Plummer and Daland buildings are ongoing: the 1960s “stacks” addition has been shorn off, and many wonder where the Phillips materials could be housed if they were returned to Salem. The PEM had a viable plan for the expansion of the Phillips Library in these buildings and in Salem, but that plan was abandoned in favor of the new wing and Collection Center in Rowley.




So I think that’s where we are, but any good summary should also include what remains to be seen, or what I still don’t understand. After two years of immersion in this very singular issue: these are the concerns, problems, and questions that still linger in my mind:

  1. I don’t understand why the City didn’t try harder to retain our history. It’s been dawning on me for some time that this entire proceeding reveals more about the City of Salem than the Peabody Essex Museum. Recently I’ve heard that the City’s tourism office, Destination Salem, plans to focus on genealogy or “roots” tourism over the next few years. This makes sense on one level, as this is the most dynamic trend in the tourism industry currently and Salem is Ellis Island for many Anglo-Americans, but it makes no sense on another, as Salem has no genealogical records because they are all in Rowley.
  2. I don’t understand how the Phillips Library is going to survive as a library in Rowley: a real library, with regular patrons, events, talks, exhibits and a sense of community. I can understand how it will exist as a repository, but not a library. Every research library I’ve ever worked in–the Folger, Houghton, the Massachusetts Historical Society—is an active gathering place, but I can’t see people gathering at that sterile place in Rowley. It’s a professional operation to be sure, and researchers will go there to do their research, but that’s about it. I guess that’s what the PEM wants, as the promise to offer exhibitions of Phillips collections is being kept, with a Hawthorne exhibition opening next month in the new wing, in Salem.
  3. Speaking of comparable research libraries, I don’t understand why a “Harvard Depository” system cannot be utilized with the Phillips Library, retaining the offsite Collection Center as a storage facility from which materials can be retrieved and brought to the MAIN Library, which could be reinstated in the Plummer and Daland buildings on Essex Street in Salem. This would solve the storage issue and retain the traditional space, place, and role of the Phillips Library, and it could be operated as an accessible facility that would serve researchers and the general (curious) public. I’m sure there’s a reason why this can’t happen, but I wish I knew what it was, as it seems like the reasonable solution to a layperson like me, and one which would benefit all parties: the PEM, the City of Salem, and the Phillips Library itself.

21 responses to “Losing our History? Two Years Later……Where are We with the PEM?

  • Tony G.

    I think your solution #3 is the way to go. The Massachusetts Historical Society, Smithsonian Museums, and other archives use similar off-site repository systems: Researchers request material stored off-site 2 days before visiting and it is waiting for them when they arrive. I think it is wise to seek a modern storage facility for the collection, but it should simply be a storage facility rather than the reading room location.

    • daseger

      It seems obvious to me too, Tony, but no one at PEM has brought it up so far, and there’s no pressure from Salem, so I’m not sure there is a will or a way. But maybe–I don’t think the new leadership of the PEM is focused on this right now; they have a lot going on.

  • lisebreen

    Donna, I agree with many of your points. But as a Gloucester resident, I confess that I’ve enjoyed working in Rowley facility with its bank of sunny windows, correct height desks, good chairs, and plenty of outlets with librarians on hand to retrieve almost anything immediately. So I am a little dubious about a proposal for off-site retrieval–which is also the new model for the Cape Ann Museum archives unless I have the assurance that requests could be fulfilled within an hour or two. Often when reading a source, or consulting with the librarian, I find new information that I want to follow up on immediately during the rare day I have set aside for research at that facility. If it is off-site, we may have to days for it to appear. The main goal is that the material should be easily accessible.

    • daseger

      I understand your position–if I was a U.S. historian in northern Essex County I’d be happy with the Rowley location too! But do you see Phillips Rowley turning into the Mass Historical Society Reading Room—or the American Antiquarian Society? A real library rather than just a repository? I certainly don’t.

  • lisebreen

    Yes, the two functions together would have been ideal. I take your point about encouraging a vital intellectual community in situ. But setting this aside for a moment, as well as the founder’s imperatives, a community is not necessarily defined by location. There are many communities of scholars working with Salem materials who live nowhere near Salem (love not paying for parking in Salem all day when I go to Rowley!).On one occasion, I was shut out at the Rowley building when the library hosted a conference or a training session for archivists or teachers or something of that sort. So I suppose that also goes to show that this space has been used as more than a simple repository, but it is not ideal.

    I am most concerned about eroding accessibility to materials. I am worried that the appointment-based request for materials will be de rigueur at the new industrial CAM archives too and impede research. The soon to be completed prefab, metal CAM archives building is situated on a historically significant agricultural lot at the entrance to Gloucester, close by two significant historic homes, both owned by the museum. The site offers a unique opportunity for a research museum complex. (Unfortunately, there was no archaeological survey before excavation began–even though there were several reports in the nineteenth century of indigenous burials unearthed nearby). A truly accessible library should have a few evening hours. To their credit, Rowley and CAM offer some Saturday hours.

    • daseger

      Very important point, Lise, and I thank you for raising it here. My perspective throughout has always been as a Salem resident rather than a historian, but I have pressed for digitization constantly and am very happy with the strides that have been made there. Certainly if Salem had anything similar to CAM I wouldn’t be so worried about the relocation of the Phillips! But we don’t, unfortunately.

  • Henry Zbyszynski

    Thank you for your continuing efforts on this matter and this succinct two year review. The main issue that encompasses the goal of accessibility is one of community. If a facility like the one in Rowley had been located in Salem there would be no issue. The intent of the founders of the library is clear and should be honored. }{

  • Wendy Reilly Harris

    Donna Seger,
    This was an excellent recap not only for those of us who have followed this story closely but also for those wish to begin doing so!

    PEM’s lawyers must have consulted the incorporation charters of The Essex Institute and The Peabody Museum at the time of the merger, and before the secret-to-the-public purchase of the toy factory in Rowley. It’s so unfortunate that the sections on founder and donor intent were apparently overlooked!

    Thank heavens that The Isabella Stewart Gardner lawyers weren’t able to dismiss their founder’s intent. The 13 empty
    spaces in the Museum are a constant reminder to solve this heartbreaking art heist!

    I met PEM’s new Director Brian Kennedy the other night. I
    have a good feeling about him. I hope he adopts a motto similar to The Cape Ann Museum’s : Art and Culture, yes, but History in the middle!

  • Nelson Dionne

    It might be worse than we can imagine. few weeks back, a friend went to PEM Rowley. When e requested to see the bound volumes,of a Salem
    newspaper the person claimed that they never them, or if they did,, they no longer had them now.. The complete set of bound of this newspaper was given to the Phillips, AKA The Essex Institute, for preservation
    in 1950 ,when the newspaper suspended publishing.after 50 years of being an independent voice in Salem. I leaving out a large part of the
    story. out, but II can be reached by dialing your telephone to my number
    in your Bell Directory., same number for almost 40 years.

  • Rick Dodge

    Very well done synopsis of the events and the goals that most of us would like to see in the end. In reference to #3, I so remember the Dan Monroe words ..”any transporting of archival materials would require a climate controlled vehicle..”

    • daseger

      Well Mr. Monroe is gone. I don’t think the offsite storage system, for lack of a better phrase, would be as difficult to administer as he envisioned, and I do think the PEM would be pleasantly surprised at the number of people in Salem–both residents and visitors–who would come to the Phillips Library downtown, but they might be too committed to the present situation.

  • Isabella Jancourtz

    This whole thing has been a travesty. I have always thought that a lawsuit to enforce the relevant provisions of the 1821 Essex Institute charter is in order. I do believe that the Essex Superior Court would require the entire collection to be returned to Salem and that the SJC would uphold such a decision, as the intent of the donors is dispositive, unless performance is impossible, which is clearly not the case here.
    However, if the new director and his board can be persuaded to finally do the right thing, that would be the best resolution of all.
    Thanks for keeping us posted, Donna, and for your continuing efforts in this matter.

  • Anne Sterling

    With upcoming elections for at large, and a few ward councilors on the horizon; I suggest we start asking two specific questions. 1) Are you in favor of establishing a Salem History Museum in Salem, and how would you accomplish that? 2) Are you in favor of appointing a Salem History Commissioner to protect our historic assets into the future and how would you go about that.
    Hats off to former historic district Chair, Jessica Herbert,who alone among city officials stood up to the PEM and made them uncomfortable enough to want to bargain with us. Without Jessica (and Deb) the PEM would have continued to walk across Salem wearing hobnail boots.

  • Frank Kulik

    I believe one important fact stands out among all the rest. Much of what is contained in the Phillips was bequeathed to the facility with the clear understanding that it was going to remain on sight in this city in perpetuity. When we fail to honor the wishes of benevolent donors, we have failed them as honorable human beings and send the wrong message to all who follow.

  • Peg Harrington

    Bravo, Donna! I’m still holding out (fanciful?) hope that the magnificent courthouse can somehow be utilized. I am also delighted to read of my cousin Michael’s involvement! He can be tenacious Thanks for your continued work on this😊 Peg Harrington

    Sent from my iPhone Peg Harrington


  • Bonnie Henry

    Very good summary of events and thoughtful assessment of where we are. YES! It is the City of Salem, more specifically it’s locus of power in the Mayor’s Office, that sat back and did nothing while this treasure was stolen. It makes me want to scream in frustration.
    While we can hope that calmer heads will prevail to do the right thing, we cannot stop pressing the leadership of Salem and the PEM until they do.
    So rich that Destination Salem is interested in “roots” tourism…. and allowed Museum Place to be renamed “Witch City Mall”. We were never about witches – but rather persecution of brave women and one man who held fast to there beliefs. Do you think they would have let this go down without a fight? We owe them their true history!

  • Nanny Almquist

    Thanks for this update which offers a little hope that the Essex Institute’s collection which has acted at the city of Salem’s historical society might be returned in part if not whole to the city in which it belongs. I take hope in the meeting with Maura Heeley our Attorney General in Massachusetts, and the fact that Dan Monroe is gone. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed big time.

    I also want to make one extra point. If Salem’s history is not returned to the city how many people will want to give family papers and documents pertaining to the city’s history to the PEM?

  • dcp16

    While I’m glad for a blow by blow documentation of what happened, there is no mystery as to just why it happened. The PEM opted for a more (in their minds) chic and sparkly image, and the dusty old bins of history were not part of that vision. My recall goes back to Dec. ’16, at which time PEM’s Jay Finney told me that the library as we knew it would be no more.

    The city and mayor had to be aware. Nothing escapes her and her minions, certainly not something this large, and within an organization that basically has an incestuous relationship with city government. The mayor was uncharacteristically quiet about the whole thing – that is, until after her inauguration at the PEM in January ‘18. She and they then came out with the shams of the forum and working group, both of which were complete (albeit certainly not opaque) smoke screens. And – we all knew it.

    She continues to be an embarrassment in this matter. She refused to reappoint former chairperson Jessica Herbert to the Historical Commission, no doubt in a fit of pique because Ms. Herbert fought such a good fight for the Phillips. Never mind that she also brought the PEM to task on restorations of museum properties that have been neglected for years and years. Ms. Herbert’s name has been dropped from the ranks of the commission, not with a bang nor even a whimper. Just… poof.

    That only amplifies the small mindedness (or is it a grandiose scheme? or both?) of our mayor. She decided that she “wanted to take the commission in another direction”. And which direction might that be, pray tell? I’ll wager, the same direction in which the Phillips went. She is obviously looking for less stewardship of Salem’s historic properties and heritage rather than more.

    Given her penchant and desire to shoe horn as much development as she possibly can into our eight square miles, it all fits together perfectly, hand in glove.


    PS We should push hard for your option #3! At least get a presence back, and a… well, library.

    • daseger

      I really don’t know what the mayor knew, or when, but I do think she could have done more. Salem officials seem so “spellbound”, for lack of a better term, by the PEM, and that is not always a helpful stance for our city.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: