Deviation, Discovery and Donors: my Last Word on the PEM’s Phillips Library

A big week—was there an election?—as the official judgement from the Massachusetts Judicial Court came down regarding the movement of the Phillips Library to a remote Collection Center by the Peabody Essex Museum in response to the latter’s petition for approval to deviate from the geographical restriction in one of its charter documents. Deviation is the legal term, as you can see in the judgement below:

JUDGMENT: “This matter came before the Court, Gaziano, J., on a Complaint pursuant to G.L. Ch. 214, §§ 1 and 10B, filed by the Peabody Essex Museum, (“Plaintiff” or the “Museum”), seeking approval of a deviation from a charitable restriction. The Museum asserts that relocation of the Phillips Library collections to the Museum’s collection center (the “Collection Center”), in Rowley, Massachusetts including materials originally held by the Essex Institute, is consistent with equitable deviation from the terms of the founding statutes establishing the Essex Institute, and is necessary to achieve the charitable purposes of those statutes. The Attorney General, an interested party, has filed her Assent. There are no issues in dispute, and this Court makes the following findings:

Pursuant to G.L. Ch. 214, §§ 1 and 10B and the court’s equity powers, the Court determines that the relocation of the Phillips Library collections to the Collection Center in Rowley, including materials originally held by the Essex Institute, is consistent with equitable deviation from the terms of the founding statutes establishing the Essex Institute (the “Founding Statutes”), and is necessary to achieve the charitable purposes of those statutes, because of the steps the Museum has taken to provide better long-term preservation of the Library collections, to increase Phillips Library storage capacity, and to ensure continued public access to the Phillips Library collections at the Collection Center in Rowley, and because of the commitments that the Museum is making in Salem, as set forth in the Complaint in Equity. Accordingly, it is hereby ORDERED that the Museum is permitted to deviate from the terms of the Founding Statutes by relocating the Phillips Library collections to the Collections Center in Rowley. So ordered.

So the Phillips Library, constituting the primary archive of Salem’s history, is enabled legally to remain in Rowley, thus ending a process and a preoccupation (for me anyway) which began back in 2017 when the PEM announced the move at a meeting of Salem’s Historic Commission. This judgement did not came as a surprise to me: in order to make her recommendation (of assent), Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey convened a meeting of interested parties in the summer of 2019: she heard us out, and attorneys from her office regularly followed up, but I could see the writing on the wall. There was never any official objection by the City of Salem.

Even though I was not surprised by this ruling, it still saddens me. So I took advantage of the long election night as well as the anxious day after to focus on a distractive strategy of trying to isolate the precise reasons why. The Peabody Essex Museum does seem like a very different institution than that which made this move three years ago: much more focused on its community and its foundations. There is a new director, Brian Kennedy, who signaled both his community and historical consciousness by returning the storied anchor which sat in front of East India Marine Hall for a century or so very shortly after his arrival. There is much more Salem stuff on display in the expanded museum, in both permanent galleries and special exhibitions. But still, we are at their mercy, are we not? The PEM decides what to show Salem about its own history, when, and how. The powers of historical discovery, revelation and interpretation are in their hands, not ours. Let me illustrate my point with the words of two Directors: Mr. Kennedy and his predecessor Dan Monroe. The blog post previewing the current exhibition Salem Stories by curator Karina Corrigan opens with a quote by Mr. Kennedy: “Wouldn’t it be great if people could learn more about Salem’s and PEM’s history within our own galleries?” which seems like a very sharp contrast to the sentiments of Mr. Monroe, when asked by the Boston Globe to explain the hastiness of the Phillips Library removal. I can’t resist one last opportunity to showcase these words:

One statement is community-minded, the other not so much, but both express the now-confirmed fact that the Peabody Essex Museum owns Salem’s history: it is not ours, it is theirs, to do with what they want as long as they preserve it—and no one has ever cast doubt on their excellent stewardship, certainly not me. Preservation was always the chief rationale for the removal of the Library from Salem and it remains so: it’s right there in the judgement. But in this case, preservation not only trumps but also precludes access for the community: it is simply going to be difficult for Salem’s residents— students, retirees, just plain old history buffs— to experience the pure joy of making historical discoveries for themselves. Instead, their history will be handed to them, or “packaged” for them. I’m probably over-sentimental on this point: I just love local historical societies and want one for Salem desperately but the Phillips Library is quite a bit more than that. Within its collections, however, there are so many community resources: family papers, record books of all sorts of Salem societies, memorials of little local events which might not catch a professional researcher’s eye but are nonetheless fragments of the fabric of a society long gone. I still don’t understand why a suitable—and much more accessible—site for the “Collection or Collections Center” (both terms are used interchangeably, as in the above judgement) could not have been found in Salem, and that makes me sad, as does the emptiness of the beautifully-preserved buildings of the former Phillips Library on Essex Street.

So that’s one source of my lingering sadness; the other is the issue of donor intent. This is the question that I asked at the well-attended forum in January of 2018 at the PEM after its intent to remove the Library  was finally disclosed. Mr. Monroe waved me off and indicated that all was well on that front, but that is not what I have heard here. Several donors have commented on my Phillips Library posts, and I’ve received emails from others, all indicating that either they or their family members believed that they were contributing to a Salem repository and to Salem history. Such sentiments are also expressed in the Annual Reports of the Essex Institute over the years, and even when they are not expressed explicitly, you can infer the intent. For example, look at these large memorial funds from 1966:

Eleanor Hassam, who you can read more about here, came from a very wealthy Boston family, but had deep Salem roots and made bequests with clear geographical and institutional purpose: the Essex Institute received “a handsome and varied bequest” from Miss Hassam, including a legacy of $10,000, many personal and family items, and one-half interest in the the residue of her estate in 1941. The Annual Report from that year announced the bequest with reference to the keen interest in local history and genealogy of both Miss Hassam and her father. Miss Jenny Brooks, a Salem embroidery entrepreneur, established a memorial fund for her father Henry Mason Brooks with the generous sum of $40,000 in 1899: Mr. Brooks served as Secretary of the Essex Institute and was a prolific local historian and author of the Olden Time series. Another generous Salem daughter, Anna Pingree Wheatland Phillips, established an endowment in memorial to her father, Stephen Goodhue Wheatland, who served as Mayor of Salem during the Civil War. Ira Vaughan was a successful Salem inventor, manufacturer, and salesman of tanning machinery. Robert S. Rantoul, esteemed lawyer, politician, and officer of the Essex Institute, was memorialized as a “great student of Salem history” in his 1922 Boston Daily Globe obituary, and by his children with an endowment. Thomas Franklin Hunt was the author of the popular Visitors Guide to Salem and Pocket Guide to Salem issued by the Institute, and yet another prolific local historian. Like many of these memorialized men, Francis Henry Lee (I assume there is a typo in the above report) was actively engaged in Salem institutions and the collection and recording of his own Salem experience: his papers in the Phillips Library are among the most valuable sources of the city’s nineteenth-century history. I can’t speak for the dead, but both the donors and the namesakes of these endowments were all focused intently on Salem with an apparent pride of place, and I can’t imagine they would be pleased with this “equitable” deviation. I’m sorry we couldn’t bring the Phillips Library home for them, and for everyone who is interested in the history of this heritage-stripped city.

One of the PEM Collection Masks from the PEM’s shop, based on a fan donated by Eleanor Hassam; unfortunately it is sold out, as is one featuring the “Witch over Salem”. 


7 responses to “Deviation, Discovery and Donors: my Last Word on the PEM’s Phillips Library

  • fbradkingFrancie King

    I’m with you on every point, Donna. And I’ve followed your many posts on this issue. The Phillips BELONGS in SALEM. Period. That the PEM could not see its way to making that possible has given me a very different feeling about the museum and its officers—and their collective intent. I am no longer the fan I was of the PEM …. I see this decision as emblematic of decisions to come in the future.

    • daseger

      Well it’s over. I’m looking for a historical society with which to volunteer since that opportunity does not exist here in Salem: I’m sure I’ll find my way over to Marblehead where you guys hold on to your heritage!

  • Anne Sterling

    Thanks once to again go to Donna AV Seger for “unleashing a firestorm” of protest against the removal of Salem’s heritage to Rowley, and perhaps for showing Dan Monroe the door. My sadness is that a civilian academic had to lead the effort in her spare time whilst Salem’s leadership team did absolutely nothing, other than lunching in Rowley, to retain the city’s priceless historical heritage. In a city that depends on tourist dollars, who cites history and heritage as it’s leading tourist draw; how does that make any practical sense? We are lucky that the PEM is now led by Brian Kennedy who “get’s it” that these artifacts and papers are priceless assets to a museum which has suddenly woken up to their value. Belatedly to be sure. And Salem handed them over without so much as a whimper.

  • Tony

    I have thought much about this and I think a possible compromise could be in following the example of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. The MHS operates both an offsite storage facility and their reading room in Boston. Perhaps PEM could open a Salem reading room. Researchers would need to request materials be delivered a few days ahead, but it would greatly ease accessing materials.

    • daseger

      Absolutely, Tony. That was the original suggestion of the Friends of the Phillips Library group—I think it makes perfect sense. Every single research library I have worked in has had a reading room and an offsite facility. But the PEM has never agreed to that. The prior administration committed to having the Library in Plummer Hall open, but with not much in it! There’s never been a serious discussion that I know of about a true reading room.

  • Dan Dixey

    I’m 100 miles away and this decision infuriates me!

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