Can’t We Copy Concord?

The Concord Museum has been one of my favorite local history museums for some time, but I haven’t been there since the completion of a major expansion and reinterpretation initiative during the Covid years. Late last week I found myself with some free time and so off to Concord I went. I was impressed with the update, but just like the last time I visited, I could only really see the Concord Museum through the prism of a missing Salem Museum: I walked through the exhibits, which manage to be both chronological and thematic, sweeping yet very focused, thinking: Concord had this, but Salem had more of this, and also that! Salem did that first! OMG I can imagine a perfect Salem exhibit just like this Concord one, just change the names. And ultimately: can’t Salem just copy Concord? Why can’t Salem have a Concord Museum?  This is really not fair to the Concord Museum, which should be viewed on its own merits rather than comparatively, but lately (well, not so lately) I’ve become obsessed with the idea of a comprehensive Salem Museum which lays out ALL of Salem’s history in a chronological yet thematic, sweeping yet focused way: from the seventeenth through the twenty-first century, first encounters to Covid. It should be accessible and inclusive in every way, downtown of course, and it must be a collaboration between the City and the Peabody Essex Museum, because the latter possesses the greater part of Salem’s history in textual and material form. Really lately, I’ve come to think of Salem as experiencing an invasion of the body snatchers scenario, in which all of its authentic history has been detached to another town, only to be replaced by stories that are not its own: real pirates from Cape Cod, vampires who could be from anywhere and everywhere. Can’t we tell the real story, and the whole story?

So, with apologies to the Concord Museum, I’m turning it into a sort of template while also (I hope!) presenting its exhibits in some interpretive and topical detail. The museum lays out an essentially chronological view of Concord’s history, while first identifying Concord’s most prominent historical role, as a center of the emerging American Revolution, and both acknowledging and examining its regional indigenous history. Then we stroll though Concord’s history, which is told through both texts and objects, and lots of visual clues asking us to look closely.

Indigenous regions & English plantations: the Concord Museum explores the land negotiations in detail.[Salem also posseses a 17th century land-transfer document, held at City Hall. The 1686 “Original Indian Deed” of Frank Cousin’s photograph below features many more signature marks of Native Americans, testifying to a more complicated negotiation? I don’t really know: it’s not part of Salem’s public history.]

“Original Indian Deed” at Salem City Hall, c. 1890, Frank Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth.

You walk through the Concord Museum viewing exhibits in chronological order, but there are necessary tangents, and the biggest stand-alone exhibit is devoted to the events of one day: April 19, 1775. This is a new permanent exhibit, and it utilizes all the latest technology of visual storytelling while at same time focusing on the personal experiences of those involved. The famous Doolittle images, rendered dynamic, rim the perimeter of the exhibition room and a large digital map illustrates the events of the day. There’s a lot of movement in this room! We also hear from some of the participants and see the texts and objects which highlight their experience. How does one get ready for a Revolution? How does war affect daily life?

[Obviously, in a Salem Museum, one permanent exhibit would have to be devoted to the Witch Trials: interpreted not only as a story but as a collective and contextual experience. Apart from 1692, Salem should be paying a lot more attention to its Revolutionary role(s): not just Leslie’s Retreat, but also its brief role as a provincial capital and those of all of its privateers! Real Salem privateers.]

There is a continuous emphasis on how individuals experienced and shaped their world in the Museum’s exhibits, encompassing both big events, pressing issues, and daily life. We learn about the African-American experience in Concord through both official documents and the lives of two black families in town: the Garrisons and the Dugans, whose members were acquainted with both enslavement and freedom. Thomas Dugan’s probate inventory is posted, alongside a display of the possessions listed thereon. Concord’s dynamic abolitionist movement is another window into the institution of slavery, but it is not the only one. As would certainly be the case with a Salem presentation, abolition provides an opportunity to showcase female agency, and the Museum’s exhibits do not disappoint. But again, all I could think of was: Salem’s Female Anti-Slavery Society predates Concord’s Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society by several years, AND it was desegregated because it was an extension of the first female abolitionist society in Salem, which was founded by African-American women.

The Museum’s exhibits on slavery and abolition: Mary Merrick Brooks was a particularly active member of the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, and because her husband did not support its efforts, she sold her own tea cakes; “potholder quilts” were made up of squares like this one, which were also sold at Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Fairs in Concord (as well as Salem).

[The Histories of Slavery and Abolition illustrate the Salem problem really well, as there has been lots of research into both over the past few years by several institutions, including the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Hamilton Hall. But their efforts are all SILOED, and this prevents the diffusion of a comprehensive history of both to residents and visitors alike. Salem Maritime has developed walking tours and a research guide into African-American history in Essex County, the PEM is currently exhibiting an examination of school desegregation in Salem, and Hamilton Hall has had lots of materials and texts pertaining to the Remond Family on its website for several years, but are all these resources really getting out there? A common space and place for historical collaboration and exhibition would amplify all of these efforts considerably. We have so much information, from Salem’s 1754 Slave Census entry (below), to the recently-rediscovered 1810 Census for Salem, to the digitized records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (credit to the PEM’s Phillips Library for getting both the Census and the SFASS records out there), to the abolition petitions digitized by Harvard: but it’s not being used to tell a cohesive and comprehensive story! The Concord Museum has an Uncle Tom statue which once belong to Henry David Thoreau, but the Salem Museum could display an Uncle Tom’s Cabin card game manufactured by the Ives Brothers in 1852.]

There were 83 enslaved persons in Salem in 1754 according to the Massachusetts Slave Census of that year.

Like Salem, Concord has many heritage sites, so I imagine the Concord Museum serves as an orientation center from which people can go on to visit the Alcott’s Orchard House, Minute Man National Historical Park, or Walden Pond (among other places!) The Museum has reproduced Ralph Waldo Emerson’s parlor—while the actual room is just across the way–and utilized digital technology to enhance its interpretation. There’s also a great exhibit on Henry David Thoreau, but Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne seem a bit short-changed—maybe there’s an evolving emphasis? A Salem Museum would have a host of public intellectuals to juggle as well. Lots of material objects “made in Concord” or purchased in Concord and we also get to learn about the town’s conspicuous visitors—some of whom stayed at the famous Old Middlesex Hotel. [it would be so much fun to research an exhibition on who stayed at Salem’s equally famous Essex House.]

Details from the Concord Museum’s Emerson and Thoreau rooms—the star is one of several placed by Concord antiquarian Cummings E. Davis, whose collection is essentially the foundation of the Museum, along a trail in Walden Woods to lead people to Thoreau’s cabin. Loved this image of the Old Middlesex Hotel which seems to have played a hospitality role similar to that of the Essex House in Salem, below (an 1880 photograph).

I’m skipping over a lot, as there was a lot to see, so you’ll have to go to the Museum yourself, but I did want to mention its engagement with Concord’s storied history as well as the documented past. Concord is a famous place, just like Salem, and so there is an obligation not only to present the past but also to address how the past has been presented, to take on “Paul Revere’s Ride” as well as April 19th. I really liked how the Museum presented the process of commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord a hundred years later, chiefly through the commission of Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue. A photograph of a group of disenfranchised Concord women surrounding the statue at its unveiling on April 19, 1875 makes a big statement, especially as Louisa May Alcott, present on that day, later noted that women could not march in the grand parade unescorted or even sit in the stands to listen to speeches of the day (maybe this was a blessing).

11 responses to “Can’t We Copy Concord?

  • Terrence M Vaughan

    Never more needed. Thank you. Let PEM give over Plummer Hall and the Daland House for such a Salem History Museum. These are perfectly located, attached and have the right ambience to drive out the goulish and foolish that have proliferated on the Essex St. pedestrian way.

    • daseger

      I just wonder why it’s not obvious to everyone else but us! People generally look at me like I’m crazy when I bring this topic up…..

  • Nanette deMaine

    Bravo!!! Let ‘s do it! (And let’s put it, or at least try to put it, in the Phillips Library where it belongs.) Please put me down as a volunteer.

  • Lillian Hsu

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Thank you very much for this post. I am not a historian and have only lived in Salem eight years, but early on it occurred to me that there was no single place to get the real history of Salem. And it seemed shocking to me, considering the importance of this history for that of the whole country, and considering the depth of Salem history in two major areas of maritime commerce and the witch trials, and considering the thousands of tourists who visit, in large part because of the history that is still evident in the built environment, the landscape, and under our feet. I admit I have not been to every place in Salem that has some version of “witch museum” in their name, but it shouldn’t take a search, and I’ve become convinced that what I’m looking for does not exist. I loved the current and recent exhibitions at the PEM on Salem history but was very disappointed that they were not intended to be permanent. Several years ago I wrote a proposal to make Old Town Hall a daily, year-round public space, an indoor and outdoor civic “plaza”, and in my conversation with the Mayor I asked where she takes visitors or family to learn about Salem history. I was appalled when she said the exhibition in Old Town Hall, because to my view the set of vinyl banners I’ve seen there do not at all do justice to the history of Salem. I kept asking this question, and some people said Salem State has a good archive, and others mentioned the Salem room at the library. I’m still perplexed that a serious, in-depth, well-designed exhibition or museum designed through a contemporary lens has not been created to be on view at all times, in a central location. And I keep asking: why has this not happened. Certainly not for lack of historians, collective knowledge, archives, and descendants in the area who care deeply. Is it politics? Funds? Advocacy?

    • daseger

      Hi Lillian, thanks for your reply. You’re just where I am; I simply don’t understand why Salem doesn’t take its history seriously. It is constantly perplexing to me; it’s why I started this blog. It’s why I can’t STOP blogging! I don’t know what it is—other than the fact that so much of Salem’s history is in the hands of the PEM rather than a public institution. Certainly this present Mayor is no advocate for history; it’s a tool for her. But I don’t think Salem mayors have had a historical perspective for a century actually, so she is in good company. It’s bizarre, because a serious history museum would benefit both the City and the PEM but neither entity sees the potential. I remember your town hall proposal; this Culturehouse venture seems like a watered down, ephemeral version.

  • abfabsweetie1

    This is great, Donna. I heartily agree that Salem NEEDS an authentic “history” museum. PEM, H7G, etc. are great but they don’t convey the entirety of what Salem is and stands for.
    I so wish we could get back to the legacy of this great city, rather than seeing it turned into more and more urban blight. These new structures going up are anathema to historians, history and good-architecture lovers, and to those who remember and know Salem’s true worth.
    I’m all for a Salem History Museum and wish we could restore and re-use one of our wonderful older/historic buildings to create a museum for Salem rather than turned into condos. I love the idea so much, Donna, I’d happily and willingly help to work on a concept for this pro bono if and when the project ever gets off the ground.
    Don’t give up the gentle fight!

    — Dorothy V. Malcolm

  • abfabsweetie1

    P.S. I’m NOT “abfabsweetie1” and want to demolish that goofy moniker!

  • Terrence M Vaughan

    After visiting, this morning, Charlotte Forten Park and seeing the gold and black baloons of the new “Pirate Museum” and peering into the waters of South River only to see the metal furniture of the park that had been carelessly dumped into its murky waters, I kind of lost hope that this city is capable of taking care itself in the present let alone its past. It seems like PEM is the only entity in town capable of doing this and how do you get their ear to help create a real history museum when even they seem to have gotten “lost in the sauce”, so to speak, with blue ginkos and Coco Chanel?

    • daseger

      I’m with you, kind of hopeless: what happened to Charlotte Forten Park is soul-crushing. But it makes me feel better to write, so I do! I don’t think the PEM is interested in Salem history, but I think they need to so something with those buildings, no?

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    I enjoyed your description of the newly renovated Concord Museum. Indeed, it would serve well as a model for your long dreamed of Salem Museum as well as for other smaller communities who have historical holdings.

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