Category Archives: Current Events

PEM: Praise and Public History

Ever since that fateful night in early December 2017 when a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum disclosed that the vast majority of the collections in its Phillips Library, the major repository for Salem’s history, would be moved to a storage facility in Rowley, I’ve been both very critical of this decision and very focused on the institutional leadership which made it. This admission is no surprise to regular (likely suffering in silence) readers: much more so will be the praise that I’m actually going to heap on the PEM in this post! Just this past week the museum announced two new positions: a manager of historic structures and landscapes for its historic houses in Salem and a head librarian for the Phillips Library. From my perspective, both positions signal a renewed commitment to the Salem resources which the PEM inherited from its founding institutions, particularly the Essex Institute. I’ve never questioned the PEM’s stewardship of its assets: my major concern has been mothballing, so investment in these important areas is very welcome. The architectural position seems focused on preservation issues, but the new librarian will be charged with some big organizational and outreach responsibilities, including increasing the Library’s responsiveness to the needs of local, regional, national and international researchers, integrating it more fully into the Museum, and transforming the Phillips into an innovative and active intellectual hub supporting the overall mission and global scope of the PEM. All this and the long-awaited digitization plan! This is a very responsible position and the PEM should be commended for seeking to fill it.

Librarian collage

Librarian Library of Congress 1966Challenges & Opportunities:  The Head Librarian in Sam Walter Foss’s Song of the Library Staff (1906); “To the rescue. Many librarians believe computers are the only means to effectively cope with their bulging bookshelves” (1966). New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress. 

That said, I’m just not sure how the PEM is going to create the “innovative and active intellectual hub” it is referencing in this job description in a storage facility off Route One in Rowley, much less foster the community engagement that is referenced continually in all of its messaging. My continuing preoccupation with the relocation of the Phillips Library stems from outrage at the removal of Salem’s historical archives, but also confusion about how such a move aligns with the PEM’s own goals. I understand the PEM’s arguments about the logistics of conservation and digitization, but what about integration? How can the Library be integrated more fully with the Museum when the Library is in Rowley and the curators of the Museum—as well as the physical Museum itself—are in Salem? Perhaps the goal is a virtual/digital integration, but we all know that that’s a long way off for the PEM. Discussion of LAM (Libraries, Archives & Museums) integration has been evolving for over a decade, and the Head Librarian job description indicates awareness of this dialogue, but the PEM seems oddly out of touch with other cultural trends, namely the evolution (and rejuvenation in many cases) of libraries as places not only of collections but also myriad connections and the growth of a dynamic field and practice of public history which emphasizes a wider and more multi-faceted engagement with the past. The PEM is investing a lot of money in the restoration of the physical buildings which constitute the (former?) Phillips Library in Salem but what purposes—and who— will this space serve once it is finished?

AAR collagePast & Present: the Library of the American Academy in Rome in 1933 and today, “a perfect blend of the past with the contemporary demands of modern scholarship.”

I understand that the h-word is anathema in the upper realms of the PEM but why ignore the demands of its host community, the interests of hundreds of thousands of visitors to Salem each year, as well as the strengths of its collections and its stated goals of “community engagement” by abandoning history? The answer can only lie in a very simplistic (and musty) understanding of what historical interpretation in the public realm constitutes these days: Colonial Williamsburg blinders if you will. Many of the PEM/PM Third Thursday events (now defunct), had historical aspects, as exemplified in its (also now defunct?) Phillips Library blog, Conversant. “History” is not all about the War of 1812 or even the Salem Witch Trials (I swear): it’s also about fashion, food, play, cross-cultural encounters, and golden ages, all of which the Peabody Essex Museum clearly embraces. History is about home, and housing: just imagine a PEM-initiated public history project about housing in Salem past, present and future similar to the 2016 symposium organized by the Cambridge Historical Society entitled “Housing for All?”. I can’t imagine anything more relevant, more engaging, and more reflective of the Museum + Library’s integrated resources.

Before_the_Fire__Salem_Neighborhood_North_Side_of_Broad_Street

Redevelopment__Completed_Reconstruction_The_PointBefore & After the Great Salem Fire of 1914: Housing on the northern side of Broad Street before the Fire and Mill Hill after, Phillips Library Digital Collections.


Salem Film Fest 2018

It is that time of year again: time for the annual Salem Film Fest, now in its eleventh year and very firmly established on the cultural calendar. Over the years, it has been very inspiring to see the festival’s growth: in terms of participation, attendance, offerings and impact. The care taken with curation is always very apparent to me: resulting in a nice balance of films with themes that are global and local, environmental and material, very serious and a bit more whimsical. One of the first films I saw at the festival was Grown in Detroit, way back in 2011: this was an interesting window into the urban crisis playing itself out in Detroit at the time and this year’s Beauty and Ruin offers another by focusing on the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, which some thought might provide a solution to the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. I’m really looking forward to this film: as most of you know, the sanctity (and proximity) of a community’s treasures are important to me, and this film will be playing in PEM’s lovely Morse Auditorium!

FilmFest

FilmFest2 Stills and scenes of Detroit past and present in Beauty and Ruin.

I have a friend who oversaw the recent Skinner auction of items from Avis and Eugene Robinson’s collection of African American history (and also this beautiful–but troubling—catalog), so I’m also interested in seeing Black Memorabilia, which examines “the subculture around the collectibles and antiques that serve as reminders of America’s troubled racial past and present”. And speaking of subcultures, I might go for Mermaids, in which a select group of individuals idolize, identify and occasionally “become” sirens of the sea. In keeping (somewhat) with the marine theme, the South Korean film Old Marine Boy about a daring North Korean deep-sea diver in the South, looks amazing. On a very different note, I’m kind of interested in seeing Rodents of Unusual Sizeabout the enormous orange-toothed swamp rats (nutria) which have infested the waters of Louisiana post-Katrina and oil spills, but I’m not quite sure I want to spend so much time with these odious creatures on the big screen.

Mermaids Film

Old Marine Boy

Rodents2Scenes from Mermaids, the Old Marine Boy, and the poster for Rodents of Unusual Size.


Remember the Armory

The opposition to the Peabody Essex Museum’s removal of Salem’s historical archives to an industrial park in Rowley incorporates a range of perspectives: some people have never been in the Phillips Library but nevertheless have been waiting for its return; others have very concrete memories of childhood forays or later visits to research some specific aspect of their Salem past: their house, their neighborhood, their family. Everyone had great expectations: as the Museum leadership closed the Library in 2011 with promises to return in two years, only to disclose the Rowley move six years later, under duress. Expectations are a powerful motivating force, but so too is distrust: and for those of longer Salem residence the latter is clearly apparent. For them, the PEM’s latest move (literally and figuratively) falls into an established pattern of behavior that has broken trust with the Salem community. And the event that looms largest in this pattern is the demolition of the storied Salem Armory in 2000, under the auspices of the Peabody Essex Museum, which had previously signed a memorandum of agreement to preserve and incorporate the Armory’s headhouse into its expansion plans. Only the Armory entry arch remains on Essex Street, right next door to what used to be the Phillips Library, a constant reminder of what was and what was not preserved.

Armory 2

Salem Armory LOC

Armory Arch

The Salem Armory in 1992, ten years after a ravaging fire, and the year of the Memorandum of Agreement by which the “Museum Collaborative” promised to preserve its headhouse. This was also the same year that the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem were merged to form the Peabody Essex Museum, which was still bound by that agreement. Library of Congress.

The Armory story–of its rise, role, and fall–has been written about many times, and well: the preservation report and narrative for the MOA is here, some colorful context is here, and the story in parts, right up to arrival of the wrecking ball, is here. But one of the most poignant accounts of the Armory (or of any building’s destruction, frankly) that I have ever read is a Letter to the Editor (of the Salem Evening News) written by Salem architect Staley McDermet in 2002, two years after its demolition. Mr. McDermet asks for an apology that I don’t think he–or we–every received, and goes on to document everything that happened. Indeed, the letter is historical in terms of both intent and subject, but it is also a very timely document, in light of the PEM’s recent actions and their explanations for actions in the past, so timely that I thought it should be “published” again.

Armory text 1

Armory text2

Armory text 3

Armory text 4

 


Uncovering a Shipwreck

Our recent nor’easter uncovered a skeletal shipwreck on Short Sands Beach in my hometown of York, Maine, and I dispatched my parents to take pictures almost as soon as the skies cleared, knowing that our mercurial weather could result in its resubmergence at any time. This particular shipwreck has actually appeared several times over the last fifty years or so, but this time it attracted a lot of attention, both locally and nationally. Many of the stories referred to it as the remains of a “revolutionary era” ship, but the most recent report, based on empirical mapping and sampling by an archaeologist for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and past research, indicates that the ship might have been a pre-revolutionary “pinky” sloop named the Industry, which ran aground in York with a southbound cargo of lumber in October or November of 1769. The source for this information is a retired York police officer named Barry Higgins, who became curious about the shipwreck after its appearance in the 1980s. And where did Mr. Higgins go to research this wreck? Why the Phillips Library of course, which was/is not only the major repository of local and family history in our city and region, but also of maritime history. At that time, it was open and accessible, and Mr. Higgins found the reference to the Industry in the journal of York notary public Daniel Moulton: for which we can all see a description in the digitized catalog, but not much more than that.

Shipwreck long beach

Shipwreck SS2

Shipwreck SS4

Shipwreck SS3The Short Sands Shipwreck last week.

First impressions are of the remains of a relatively small ship, yet the national reports immediately went naval: the Washington Post consulted with a Naval History and Heritage Command official who consulted a database of 2,500 shipwrecks but was unable to find any records indicating it was an American sloop. But Mr. Higgins knew just where to go thirty years ago, to Salem’s Phillips Library, a well-known repository of maritime history. All of these records are now removed from their natural foundation, en route to Rowley (or perhaps already there in their boxes), and hopefully the state of Maine will have enough sway to gain access so that the identity of this slippery sloop can be verified, again and once and for all.

Shipwreck gone2

Shipwreck gone The Short Sands Shipwreck yesterday–gone but not forgotten.

SHipwreck last


Salem Women’s Lives in the Phillips Library

As they are now, Salem women were really, really busy in the near and more-distant past, and the records in the Phillips Library are a testament to both the range and intensity of their activities. At this moment, the PEM is highlighting all of the powerful women whose work and lives are featured in their 2018 slate of exhibitions, including Georgia O’Keeffe, artist and facilitator Angela Washco, photographer Sally Mann, and a succession of Qing Dynasty empresses of China. In her post, Lydia Gordon writes about “multiple feminisms” and observes that to operate in feminist modes is not just advocating for women’s issues, but rather to take on the human issues within social, cultural, economic and political arenas of our lives. To be a feminist is to be human. I couldn’t agree more, and while it is wonderful to have all these exhibitions on view here in Salem, once again I am struck by the burying of the local past by an institution which is focused primarily on the more global present. For the collections of the PEM’s Phillips Library are full of women tak[ing]on the human issues within [the] social, cultural, economic, and political arenas of [their] lives, and I’m afraid we’re never going to hear their stories–or see their faces.

Woman Pierce PEMThe lovely Catherine Johnson Pierce, who we do get to see in Salem: anonymous American artist, c. 1828-29, Peabody Essex Museum.

So many activist “Republican Mothers” in nineteenth-century Salem! Here’s just a sampling of women’s association papers in the Phillips Library: the Salem Female Charitable Society Records (1801-2001; MSS 359—still active today!), the Dorcas Society of Salem (1811-1875; MSS 113), The Seamen’s Widow and Orphan Association (1833-1960; Acc. 2011.008); the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Records, 1834-1866; MSS 34—fortunately digitized by the Congregational Library and Archives), the Salem Female Employment Society (1861-1875; MSS 113) and the Salem Thought and Work Club (1891-1974), headed by the famed author and activist Kate Tannatt Woods, who deserves her own archive. In her 1977 article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, then-curator Anne Farnam outlined the workings of the Salem Female Charitable Society early in the nineteenth century, and also reads between the lines to illustrate what can be gleaned from the more opaque entries, such as the vote of the SFCS on September 2, 1801 from the first published list of subscribers of the society. Mrs. West was in the process of a bitter divorce, and one would like to have heard that discussion. As the century progresses, Salem women’s organizations continue to serve as charity stewards, and widen their social scope to include abolition, temperance, education and immigration.

Women PEM SFCS

WOMEN PEM collage A published sermon for the Salem Female Charitable Society, 1815; and records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society as digitized by the Congregational Library & Archives.

And then there are so many stories of individual women in the Phillips: far too many to include an exhaustive list here. One could: follow a Salem sea captain’s wife along as she accompanies her husband around the world in 1837-38 (Log 405), reconstruct several long-distance marriages by delving into the correspondence between captain’s wives who stayed in Salem and their roving husbands, perceive how several Salem women, from different stations in life, assessed the world around them and their own lives during short and long stretches of time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through their diaries; appreciate the contributions of the extraordinary women of the Remond family (MSS 271), assess the interesting lives and careers of the “Misses Williams” of Salem, two spinster sisters who made, taught, collected and sold art in Salem, and traveled to Italy and elsewhere recording their observations and purchasing items for resale back in their Salem studio/gallery (MSS 253); read cookbooks annotated with notes and suggested variations (MSS 483); examine the unsuccessful restoration of the Qing Dynasty in China from the perspective of three missionaries present at the time (MSS 0.650), learn so much more about the lives and work of so many accomplished Salem women, including Sophia and Rose Hawthorne (MSS 69), educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (MSS 474), author, illustrator and educator Lydia Very (MSS 83), authors Kate Tannatt Woods and Mary Harrod Northend (Fam. Mss 1119 and MSS 0.016) and artist and entrepreneur Sarah Symonds (MSS 0.016).

Women PEM Collage 3

Photograph of Waters family members, undated, MSS 92 Volume 4

Women PEM Williams Sisters Studio

Women PEM Very

 

Women PEM Woods

Cookbook

Synchronicity Sarah Symonds

Studies of the intersection of maritime and gender histories have been trending for some time–but where do the rich collections of the Phillips Library fit in? Women of the Waters Family–all dressed up and ready to go where? (Phillips MH 12); The Studio of the Misses Williams of Salem (Phillips Library photograph from Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s “The Misses Williams in Salem and Rome: Women Making and Marketing Art and Antiquities.” In The Art of the Deal: Dealers and the Art Market on Both Sides of the Atlantic, 18601940, ed. Lynn Catterson, 59-8 (2017)An illustration by Lydia Very, who bequeathed her Federal Street house to the Essex Institute (MSS 83); Kate Tannatt Woods, Out and About (1882); What Salem Dames Coked, the cookbook published by the Esther C. Mack (another amazing woman) Industrial School in 1910, 1920, and 1933 and reprinted by Applewood Books; The “Colonial Studio” of Sarah Symonds on Brown Street, in a building now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.

As I think about these Salem women on this particular day, in the midst of this particular Women’s History Month, I am dismayed and disheartened when I should be inspired. The sources for women’s history in the Phillips Library are so rich that I have no doubt that they will be discovered and dispersed by a succession of scholars, as many have already (and the digitized catalog and finding aids will facilitate that process), but the prospects for public presentation and engagement seem bleak. As the Phillips collections take up residence in an inaccessible factory, with no obvious digitization plan in place or apparent institutional interest in historical interpretation, it is difficult to see how the people of Salem—or visitors to our “historic city”– will be able to face its history in any meaningful way, like the little girl below.

CurryPhotoTwo-year-old Parker Curry facing Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald: a photograph taken by museum visitor Ben Hines which went viral last week, Washington Post.


Arthur Miller in Salem

So this is where we are with the Phillips Library relocation, for lack of a better term: the Peabody Essex Museum, having made the reluctant admission that the collections will not be returning to Salem in December (after informing several parties this fact in the late spring of 2017), has agreed to keep the historic reading room in Salem open, but that’s about it: what will actually be in there is unspecified, except perhaps for volumes of the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, a venerable journal that the PEM did away with almost as soon as it had absorbed the latter. There have been two pieces in the Boston Globe, and several meetings of both the Salem Historical Commission and the Mayor’s “Working Group”, which are charged with dealing with both the exterior and interior aspects of this PEM problem. Meanwhile, the Phillips collections are en route to the 1980s toy factory off Route One in Rowley, far removed from the context of their creation, and inaccessible by public transportation.

Books-on-Shelves-870x490 I am assuming that these are Phillips materials, from the website of Smith +St. John, a “real estate and development management” company that has been fulfilling a variety of functions for the PEM, including: “Administrative leadership – when the director of the Phillips Library retired in October 2014, Smith + St. John principal Gregor Smith was asked to serve as interim director while the Museum conducted a national search to fill the position with the right rare book scholar”. Unusual to have a real estate developer serve as director of a research library, no?

Throughout these 2+ months, I have never heard one admission from a PEM representative that what they were doing was in any way detrimental to Salem, the very crucible of their collections, despite the fact that they are always lauding themselves as the country’s oldest continuously operating museum based on the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society of Salem. They remain very publicly and exclusively focused on the priority of preservation, but I see no acknowledgement that the Phillips is both a library and an archive: with public records therein, as well as materials that people will come specifically to Salem to see. There’s no better way to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between place and exploration than the example of one of the Phillips’ Library’s most famous researchers, Arthur Miller, who wrote about his trip to Salem for Crucible material and inspiration in several essays as well as his 1987 autobiography Timebends. He was drawn to Salem in the spring of 1952, but found it to be “a sidetracked town…with abandoned factories and vacant stores” according to his 1996 recollections in the New Yorker. No one wanted to talk about the trials then; it was the archives that first made the story come alive for him, the trial transcripts which he read in the “gloomy courthouse” and then other texts in a repository he identifies alternatively as the “museum” or the “historical society”: the Phillips Library.

archival collage 2

Salem's Museum NYT 1953 Feb 8.JPG

In his 1953 New York Times article “Journey to the Crucible”, Miller recalls a “silent” library/museum, in which an old man, looking like a retired professor, is reading a document. Two middle-aged couples come in from their automobile outside and ask to see the pins: the pins the spirits stuck the children with. The pins are in the courthouse, they are told. They look about at the books, the faded fragments of paper that once meant Proctor must hang tomorrow, paper that came through the farmhouse door in the hands of a friend who had a half-determined, half-ashamed look in his eyes. The tourists pass the books, the exhibits and no hint of danger reaches them from the quaint relics. I have a desire to tell them the significance of those relics. It is the desire to write. That’s a pretty good description of intellectual/creative inspiration! And he goes on, taking it outside, into the streets of Salem: the stroll down Essex Street I remember, and the empty spaces between the parking meters, the dark storefronts…but further down a lighted store, and noise. I take a look: a candy store. A mob of girls and boys in their teens running in and out, ganging around on the vacant street, a jalopy pulls up with two wet-haired boys, and a whispered consultation with a girl on the running boards; she runs into the store, comes out with a friend, and off they go into the night, the proud raccoon tail straightening from the radiator cap. And suddenly, from around a corner, two girls hopping with a broomstick between their legs, and general laughter going up at the specific joke. A broomstick. And riding it. And I remember the girls of Salem, the only Salem there ever was for me—the 1692 Salem–and how they purged their sins by embracing God and pointing out His enemies in the town. Salem girls. No researcher is going to find such archival ambiance, and such an illuminating juxtaposition between past and present, in the midst of an industrial development in Rowley. Arthur Miller returned to Salem in late 1991 for the announcement of the planned memorial for the Tercentenary in the coming year, expressing concern about the commercialization of the Trials (which “trivializes the agony of the victims”) but also appreciation for its historical resources. And with the removal of the latter, we are increasingly defenseless against the former.


The Digitization Dilemma

From my perspective, there are two digitization dilemmas inherent in the Peabody Essex Museum’s plan to relocate the Phillips Library outside of Salem, where it was created over a period of 200+ years. The first is my own dilemma: if the PEM had actually made digitization an institutional priority, I certainly would have much less of a leg to stand on (or no leg at all) in my argument that the Library should remain in Salem. The second is theirs: if they had engaged in digitization equal to that of their peer institutions across the country and globe, or even comparable, their relocation–especially as it comes with promises of increased access– would be more palatable. One thing that the public debate over the relocation has made crystal clear is the fact that despite some confusing messaging, the PEM has actually only digitized the catalog of the Phillips collections, and a few additional items, pictured below.

Digital collageCompare the PEM’s online holdings to those of an institution with similar historical materials, the Massachusetts Historical Society, or another regional institution, the Boston Athenaeum.

This scant list is not completely representative of Phillips materials online: in partnership, the PEM has enabled more of its collection to be accessible, chiefly with the Congregational Library & Archives and Adam Matthew, a British-based digital publisher of primary source databases for teaching and research. Where there is a partner, there is a way. The materials at the Congregational Library site, including witch trial records digitized previously by the University of Virginia and other records digitized as part of a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, are open access, but the materials at Adam Matthew are solidly behind a paywall. This is really unfortunate, because these are truly important Salem sources which constitute part of Adam Matthew’s China, America, and the Pacific database and the entirety of its module on Meiji Japan. 

Digital database AM

Digital Japan

Both are wonderful thematic databases, expertly curated, and likely very dear—I wasn’t able to obtain exact pricing information. We don’t have these Adam Matthew products at Salem State, but I was able to get trial access to both databases for the month of January and I dove in. It’s wonderful to have so many Morse materials assembled in one place: Morse was an extraordinary intellectual and person, by all accounts: a naturalist, ethnologist, and director of one of the PEM’s foundation institutions, the Peabody Museum of Science, from 1880 until his death in Salem in 1925. (There’s a wonderful story of Morse’s young colleagues running through and around the Great Salem Fire of 1914 to their mentor’s house on Linden Street, only to find Morse ensconced in his living room, calmly playing a flute). Meiji Japan includes materials drawn from the Phillips’ 55 boxes of Morse papers, including Morse’s famous Japan diaries, correspondence (including letters to and from his colleague Ernest Fenollosa, the Salem-born Japanese Imperial Minister of Fine Arts, whose childhood home is right next door to ours), scrapbooks, and scholarly works. There is a note in the Phillips catalog that This digital resource is available to researchers on Phillips Library computers so I guess we can all troop up to Rowley to see the works of this long-time Salem resident, or perhaps there will be a desktop in Plummer Hall.

Digital Morse

Thomas PerkinsThe very interesting house of Edward Sylvester Morse on Linden Street in Salem; the Account Book of the Thomas Perkins of Salem (pictured above from the Essex Institute’s Old-Time Ships of Salem1922) is included in Adam Matthew’s China, America, and Pacific database.

Morse is amazing, but I found the China, America, and the Pacific collection captivating, as its sources have been even less accessible and are extremely relevant to, and illustrative of, historiographical trends in world history. My trial is rapidly coming to an end with this database, but we have one at the Salem State University Library for the next month or so, so you can go and see for yourself. Records of several major Salem merchants, including Benjamin Shreve, Samuel Barton, Joseph Peabody, Benjamin Crowninshield, Joseph Bowditch, and Nathaniel Kinsman, are included, encompassing account and log books for myriad Salem ships, including Minerva, the first Salem ship to circumnavigate the globe, Canton, New Hazard, China, Comet, Catherine, Bengal, Mount Vernon, and more. These materials don’t just record trade, they decipher relationships for us, as in the account book of the Minerva’s 1809 voyage to Canton, in which “the captain and his clerk have added detailed remarks about the Canton System and the Hong Kong merchants who they met”. This particular Adam Matthew “product” would be wonderful for my students, and I wish SSU could purchase it, but funds are limited and demands great for all library materials at my public university, just as they are at all public institutions. It seems more than a bit ironic then, that so many of the Phillips materials (including the Tucker, Kinsman, Barton, Shreve, Bowditch and Peabody papers) which are included in the China, America, and the Pacific database were, in fact, processed with public funds from either the National Endowment of the Humanities or the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

I want to be very precise in my presentation of facts as PEM CEO Mr. Dan Monroe has recently complained that those of us who have “virulently criticized” the removal of the Phillips Library from Salem have been “constantly presenting false information to the public”: the PEM has licensed historical materials donated by Salem families and processed with Federal funds to a commercial academic database, and if I want my Salem students to be able to access these materials (after our trial run is over) we will have to pay for the privilege.


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