“Certified Historians” of Salem

Salem has been packed with tourists from late spring and all summer, despite the odd hot/wet weather: I’m very happy for all of our shops and restaurants after the challenges of the pandemic but getting a bit annoyed by what I’m hearing in the streets from the increasingly-unavoidable tour guides in my path and in my neighborhood. I live near downtown Salem so I should expect to be right in the heart of it all, but actually walking tours in our neighborhood are a relatively new phenomenon. I think about three years ago I first noticed them, and I was glad to see them, because I assumed that people were interested in all of the things that brought me to Salem: architecture, a very layered and diverse heritage, some great stories about very interesting people. The tours have really escalated this year, both in terms of frequency and the amount of people, and while several of them do seem to be featuring all of these things, most are definitely not. So while I’m still glad to see them in my neighborhood, I really wish I didn’t have to hear them. Clearly there is a spectrum of walking tours offered in Salem, and I don’t want to share the wealth of detail until I’ve done my due diligence, but every day I am amazed to hear just how many buildings are haunted in Salem, where our tragic history has ensured that ghosts are all around us.

This is a big and important topic. Walking tours must represent a large percentage of Salem’s tourism economy if the people on the streets are any indication. Their popularity is a natural evolution for a city that deems itself “historic” but has no credible historical museum to offer its visitors. I have a lot a questions and a lot to learn: I pitched articles to two periodicals, one academic and one popular, a month ago and both were accepted, so I’m going to be walking and digging around over the next few months. Just to see the lay of the land, I started with the visitor reviews on the tourism sites, and two things popped out for me: the concern with authenticity (of place) and credibility (of interpreter) among the tourists who left reviews. Let me start out by saying that the overwhelming majority of reviews left by Salem tourists are positive: I hope this is the same for our beleaguered restaurants! People seem to want stories, the spookier the better, and the Salem tour guides are giving them what they want. But even in the very positive reviews, there are lots of comments about sites: parking lots, intersections, modern buildings which are the sites of structures associated with the Witch Trials which are no longer there. There’s a marked disappointment among reviewers that they can’t see authentic historic sites, which explains the popularity of the Witch House and the Old Burying Point on Charter Street. It also explains why tour guides are bringing tourists to Hamilton Hall, right next door to where I live, which is a beautiful, authentic historic site with a very rich history. BUT (again, with exceptions), once they bring these tourists to the Hall, they simply tell a generic tale about the Witch Trials in front of it, even though it was not built until more than a century after they occurred. Believe me, I’ve been out in my garden and I can’t avoid these presentations: I hear the “Back to back and breast to breast, they are dancing their souls to hell” speech from the minister of the South Church which once stood across the street and then it is straight into the witch trials. This is a building rich in African-American history due to the long residence and activism of the Remond family: there is presently a (free!) exhibition on slavery and enfranchisement and this past weekend I watched as several tour groups refrained from even entering the building, with its doors wide open. And these tours don’t even walk down Chestnut Street to explore its wonders: they turn around and go back downtown! Slight exaggeration here, but this is akin to taking a few steps down the Champs-Élysées and no further. I’m always tempted to run out there and say “keep going!” but so far I have refrained; however, I did buy this sign at an antique show about a month ago and and hung it on my front fence.

Now the status and issue of “certified historians”. Apparently all public guides are licensed by the City of Salem (along with auctioneers, junk collectors, drainlayers, and “transient photographers” among other contractors). I think this must be fundamentally a safety issue, but it’s not entirely so with guides as they must take and pass an examination on Salem history. So the City is authorizing and credentialling not only practice, but also content. This is clearly apparent to tourists: they seem to praise guides for their storytelling abilities first and foremost but they also point out that they are “certified”. I have several questions about this process, because now we’re in the terrain not just of my neighborhood, but of my discipline, and my profession. Do all public guides take this examination–even those who drop in by bus for an afternoon or work for out-of-town strictly-haunted tours? How does administration and enforcement work? And why, in a city that references diversity and inclusion as often as possible in nearly all of its public communications and stated priorities, is the test for its “history” guides based on texts which are dramatically dated and reflective of “scholarship” limited to the dashing deeds of old white men? One of the texts which guides “study” was first published in 1880! There is no mention in the Visitors’ Guide to Salem or Chronicles of Old Salem to the Remonds, to Charlotte Forten (or any notable women, of any color, with the exception of Caroline Emmerton, of course) to Salem’s active abolitionist and reform movements, to the vast majority of Salem’s artists and authors, and to the succession of immigrants whose efforts and cultures have shaped the city over time. Frances Diane Robotti’s Chronicles of Old Salem (1948), attempts to offer up some global context for Salem’s dynamic commerce with the observation that “under Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal, Portuguese mariners reach the Gulf of Guinea and discover—and import to Portugal—the true Negro, thus initiating the modern African slave trade” but fails to mention the Desire, which left Salem in 1637 carrying Native American captives and returned months later with the first enslaved Africans brought to the northern English colonies. This dated “content” is reflective of the lack of seriousness with which the City approaches the interpretation of Salem history; indeed everyone I ask about this examination seems to think it’s just a big joke. So I ask: why does it exist?

Salem “history” in 1880—and today.


Appendix: This is an ongoing project for me so I’ll be posting more, but I wanted to add an appendix to this particular post about licensing and certification. Salem clearly has licensing but not certification—that ridiculous test can’t possibly credential, despite tourists’ perceptions. Two cities which have more evolved systems are Charleston and Savannah, both of which got rid of their mandatory certifications, but instituted (and encourage) voluntary ones. Court cases, referencing the First Amendment, influenced both decisions: Charleston seems reluctant but Savannah is extremely enthusiastic about its voluntary certification process and has produced a stellar manual which you can access here. Charleston has a comprehensive manual too, but you’ve got pay for it. Compare the Savannah manual to the Salem “study materials”! The Savannah system and materials were developed at the initiative of the tour guides themselves: this could certainly happen in Salem too as local, professional guides are clearly concerned about quality control. I just don’t know how you keep the ghost tours out with a voluntary system, or whether you would want to, as they are clearly popular (well I would want to, because I can’t get out of their way).

16 responses to ““Certified Historians” of Salem

  • Nina Cohen

    Taking a test about history sure doesn’t guarantee you’ll use what you know on a walking tour.

    Now that I’m giving tours at the Gables, I know it’s difficult to keep people’s attention. But aren’t our home grown heroes interesting: Sarah Parker Remond, civil rights activist whose bust is in the Statehouse, or Nathanial Bowditch and Samuel McIntire, who were born on North St. or Impressionist Frank Benson or Japan scholar Ernest Fenellosa or John Bertram. Hawthorne’s fascination with sins of the past feels very relevant today, when you think about the injustice created by slave-grown fortunes. History is way more interesting than hoo-doo stories built on fakery and untruths.

    • daseger

      I think it’s great that you are doing this, Nina: I wish you would start a blog! There was a great Twitter account a couple of years ago by a guide at one of the plantations down south called Public History Fail. He/she recorded all the questions he got, and all the times the visitors complained that he was talking too much about slavery (at a plantation!)

  • Tim Maguire

    An article like this is important,
    But at the same time there are 56 different walking tours in Salem, way too many. But only s few go to Hamilton Hall, so why not reach out to them.
    As owners we want to know what a guide might be saying so we can fix that.Also there is NO such thing as a licensed or certified historian. The city issues a background check , a multiple choice test. Also a GHOST tour is 1 part history, one part folklore, and one part entertainment, thats why a guest takes one. There are also multiple history tours offered as well The Peoples Tour we offer every Sunday morning it covers activism throughout Salem history and the Remond family as well and many more history tours.
    The time you took to write this article you could have reached out to the companies you are hearing and become part of the solution.
    To group all guides and all tours is unfair.

    • daseger

      And you comment is also important so thank you for making it, but I really don’t group all guides and tours together in this post. There are several statements in a comparatively short post about the broad spectrum of tours which exist. I put the phrase “certified historian” in quotes because it’s not my phrase: I think this is the perception of some tourists. And your number, 56, bolsters my point, which is that this test is a joke, there are simply too many tours for the City to try to administer any quality control, so it should cease and desist and stick to the public safety measures. I am going to be writing several articles on Salem’s tourism industry, so I will certainly be more specific about tours in the future. I must say that I am really confused as to I should be part of the “solution”, when I’m not really sure what the problem is for you—too much competition? You are a business owner who makes money giving these tours. I have freely given you content for 10+ years on this blog; I don’t I think I have an obligation to do more.

      • Lara Fury

        We were just talking to Jim McAllister (who wrote the test) the other day about the state of the tours in Salem. There is a clear distinction between those of us who truly care about the history, volunteer our time (cleaning the cemeteries and Memorials, assisting the City, sharing information), live and work here (my husband and I own a home on Federal Street), and those who are running from out of town or state/those who just want to make a quick buck. The reason why we bristle at posts like this is because it does lump us all together, and it makes the hard work we’ve done with the Salem Tour Association, which holds itself to a higher code of conduct, and has existed for almost 7 years now, go unnoticed. What I’m sure all want is for you to take our tours (we personally have been free to Salem Residents since day one) and understand that the problem is not “the tours,” it’s those who do not chose to follow the more than fair guidelines the City has set out, and make us all look bad in the process.

      • daseger

        I honestly don’t think I’ve “lumped” all the tours together: as I state here, I’m very aware that there is a broad spectrum of tours offered in Salem. I do not doubt the distinction you draw, and I’m sure I’ll see it for myself as I continue to explore this important topic and industry. I’m sorry, I think the test is a joke, and very contrary to the City’s other messaging about its diverse history. I don’t know why any historian would want to defend it. I would rather the City get out of the testing business altogether.

  • Roger Herson

    Donna I have offered to have you take our new Peoples Tour which is has a LOT of history on the Remonds, and you declined. If you want us as guides to share more of the historynof our city, why don’t you respond to us when we reach out to you for input? I am glad to meet with you and go over any concerns and frustrations you have. Our company wants noting more than to have a good relationship with our cities historians. I may be a guide, but I myself am also a historian. Please, let’s work together. 🙂

    • daseger

      Roger, I’ll be glad to take your tour; as I said in the post here, I’m going to be taking lots of tours! This post was very specifically about the authorization of tours by the city, which I think is problematical because of the sheer number of tours and their great variability. Why is it called the “Peoples’ Tour”: are your other tours not about people?

      • Roger John Herson

        I wanted a name that would represent ALL the PEOPLE of Salem. One of the historians I truly admire is Howard Zinn and his Peoples History of the United States. The People’s Tour was my way of honoring his work. Just as I will happily honor the work you have done to bring the Remond’s to peoples attention. It’s the best way we can encourage people to learn more.

      • daseger

        Ok, I get it! Thank you.

  • Ruth Wall

    Thank you, Donna!
    Long ago in ‘96 I sat in Old Town Hall and wrote an exam given by Jim McAllister. Probably that has changed by now. The Salem Room in the library had resources, but as you say, there was slim mention of women, and we do have some great ones to tell about.

  • Nanny Almquist

    I’m catching up on my emails, and have just read your 7/26 blog post. Out of curiosity, how can I get a copy of the current exam for tour guides? I wonder just how much of Salem’s broad history do I know? I’m going to look forward to your two articles about about Salem’s Walking Tours. I’m assuming you’ll put a link in your blog to them when they are published.
    Hopefully the articles will bring to the attention of more people the need for a Salem Museum with a reading room to replace the Phillips Library while expanding it’s focus to include exhibits on all of Salem’s history. I’m thinking of the Concord Museum which does a lovely job of walking visitor through the town’s history and it’s importance to American history. It would be wonderful to have a place in Salem that people can learn about Salem’s long history and can research it. Maybe PEM could honor the Essex Institute and the city in which it stands by using some of its new proposed space to create such a museum/reading room.

    • daseger

      Hi Nanny, I don’t think that the test is online, only the study materials, which do not indicate expectation of knowledge of a “broad history” of Salem. I put a link in the post to them. Yes, I think I even have a “Salem needs a Concord Museum” post in here somewhere; without a professional museum telling the whole story the burden is really on the tour guides, and it’s a big burden.

  • Jen

    I just finished reading this post, albeit a little late. I’m so glad that you wrote it! I have been watching these tour guides & hearing snippets here and there as I’m downtown, and all I can think of is: what are they saying? What version are they giving? Is it the TV version? Some form of half-made-up stuff? Don’t people of Salem get to have a say and how their history is portrayed?

    • daseger

      That’s the best question ever, Jen! My answer would be no, the people of Salem do not have a say in how their history is interpreted. We don’t even have most of our history: it’s up in the PEM’s collection center in Rowley! But I really don’t want to fault tour guides as 1) they are the only interpreters we have; and 2) there are so many of them, and such of broad spectrum in terms of focus and preparation. If I was a tour guide, I would seek quality control for my profession, but the city of Salem’s licensing and testing system does not provide that: so I think it’s time to get rid of it altogether.

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