Category Archives: Current Events

Art+Science

The Salem Arts Festival was this past weekend in Salem: its tenth anniversary. Last year plastic-bag jellyfish were suspended above Derby Square and Front Street; this year it was all about bees. Salem’s art scene is very vibrant now, but this little city has always had a bustling community of artists (well, after the Puritans morphed into the Congregationalists) and craftsmen. I’ve written about quite a few individual artists, but I thought I would look for more collective precedents, and that quest took me directly to the fairs of the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association (1817-1932). The records for this association, like those of nearly every Salem institution and organization, are completely inaccessible, as they are in the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library, which has been closed in Salem, removed to Rowley, and for which digitization plans are nonexistent at present. But fortunately the Association wanted to showcase the creations of all its exhibitors, and so compiled a wonderful program for its first fair in 1849 that has been digitized in several places. This was held in its very own Mechanic Hall, built a decade before.

Art + Science collage

Art + Science The_Salem_Charitable_Mechanic_Association

Art + Science Mechanic Hall SSUTwo copies of  Reports of the First Exhibition of the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association, 1849, a certificate from the exhibition (Boston Athenaeum), and Mechanic Hall at the corner of Essex and Crombie Streets in Salem, built in 1839 and destroyed by fire in 1905 (Dionne Collection, Salem State University Archives).

This program makes for very interesting reading for several reasons. First of all, the judges of each category are very detailed and opinionated about their criteria for awarding diplomas and silver medals–although it appears that everyone who showed up got the former. The sheer eclecticism of the entries is notable, as is the relatively small number of industrial entries–surprising as the exhibition was occuring in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in Massachusetts. The organizers address this deficiency in their introduction: it is to be regretted that there was not a greater display of the Manufactures of Old Essex, especially of Cotton and Woolen Goods. Andover and Newburyport, with their numerous and extensive Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Establishments, did not exhibit a single article. Saugus with her Flannel and Yarn Factories—-none, and Danvers, with her Carpet and Tweed Factories, was also deficient. When we consider that Essex County produces more than the whole State of South Carolina—-that her products are more than twenty millions of dollars—and a fair share of it in the articles alluded to—the display was not what it should have been. But notwithstanding these adverse circumstances, the energy and the perseverance of the mechanics of Salem, essentially aided by the Ladies, produced one of the most beautiful exhibitions ever witness in this vicinity. I guess they just didn’t get the word out! And yes, “the Ladies” are very well-represented in this 1849 exhibition, which showcased every possible type of art: mechanical and utilitarian, “fine” and decorative.

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1849salemmechassoc_obvDiplomas and medals for “drab” clothing, an artificial leg, mineral teeth, a miniature steam engine and a Patent Cloth Folder used at the Naumkeag Steam Mills in Salem, among other exhibits; a rare medal from the 1849 exhibition, from John Kraljevich Americana.

Above all, the integration of art and science seems very apparent in this exhibition: perhaps it is highlighted by the paucity of industrial exhibits but there are still many categories that we would consign to an arts festival today rather than one celebrating “mechanics”. Besides “Fine Arts”, everything created with a needle was on display, along with everything for the house and the body. This exhibition was all about creation, pure and simple. I love this universality and lack of separation between the artistic and the scientific: it illustrates the continued influence of the culture of the Renaissance, the period in which I was trained, during which everything was an art. But the Charitable Mechanic Association had its categories too, some of which seem rather arbitrary: the sole Daguerreotype exhibitor, one of Salem’s three practitioners at the time, was D.S. Bowdoin, who won a silver medal in the Fine Arts category for “a very admirable collection of Specimens, showing great skill in the mechanical execution, good taste in the arrangement of subjects, and in the management of light and shade”.  To me, the daguerreotype seems a near-perfect combination of art and science.

Bowdoin collageI couldn’t find any D.S. Bowdoin daguerreotypes from 1849, but here are two cartes de visite from later: studio portraits portrait of Robert Daley (or Daily), a Salem “expressman”, c. 1855 (Historic New England) and John Lewis Russell, a well-known botanist and Unitarian minister (Wisconsin Historical Society). According to the later photograph, Bowdoin’s studio was in the Downing Block, Salem.

Back in the present and now that I think about it, this arts festival does indeed bridge the gap between art and science in its own way: what could be more technological than transforming commissioned plastic bees into building materials? I have never really understood the stem vs. steAm debate, and let’s throw an H for history in there somewhere!

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Arts Festival 1

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Arts Festival 9Scenes from the Salem Arts Festival on Saturday: my neighbor Racket Shreve’s “Best in Show” painting in the gallery in Old Town Hall along with “Remembering Georgie” by Heather M. Morris; the Mural Slam—just loved this work-in-progress of “Salem from Above” by Casey Stanberry, especially in its partially finished state.


Ceremonial May

I woke up happy but exhausted this morning, having completed a marathon May week of graduate festivities: three dinners, our department retreat, and two commencement ceremonies (graduate and undergraduate) plus the usual end-of-the-semester chair business. I missed the Royal Wedding, but seem to be able to glean both the highlights and every little detail from the massive all-media coverage! It strikes me from both my academic and personal perspectives that May is a month for ceremonies: I was a May bride myself, despite that old superstitious saying (which Harry and Meghan also ignored): marry in the month of May, and you’ll surely rue the day. May makes sense for ceremonies, most of which require ceremonial garb: it’s warm enough to go coatless to show said garb off, but not too warm. That fresh spring green is everywhere, along with fragrant flowering, providing the perfect decorative setting for whatever you are celebrating or commemorating. Commencements and weddings are natural occasions for this time of year, but looking back through the seasonal year it seems that other celebrations were also planned for May: the big exposition openings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, royal coronations when possible, and several other unique events. The traditional May Day festivities of the first day of this merry month set the stage for more to come.

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Ceremonial May Prince+Harry+Marries+Ms+Meghan+Markle+Windsor+rhsxJVnjT0El

Ceremonial May SSU 1966

Cermonial May SSU

Ceremonial May SSU 2The Royal Wedding, the Marriage Ceremony in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 6 May 1882 (Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Leopold, actually married Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont on 27 April 1882, but it was May news a week later); yesterday’s wedding in St. George’s Chapel, WP pool photo; Graduation at Salem State College in 1966 (Salem State University Archives and Special Collections) and Salem State University yesterday.

Ceremonial May Great Exhibition

Ceremonial May Philadephia Centennial

Ceremonial May Golden Spike

Ceremonial May Coronation 1937

Ceremonial May Charles II

Photograph collection ca. 1860s-1960s

 Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria, 1 May 1851 by Henry Courtney Selous, Victoria & Albert Museum; opening of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876, Library of Congress; “Golden Spike” Ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the U.S., May 10, 1896, Library of Congress; “Coronation Number” of the Illustrated London News commemorating George VI’s coronation in May of 1937; King Charles II’s coronation was in April of the 1660, but the traditional holiday marking both his succession and the restoration of the monarchy, “Oak Apple Day”, was celebrated on his birthday, May 29; Decoration Day in late May, Cuba, 1899—commemorating the lost soldiers of the Spanish American War, Smithsonian Institution.


Rolling in Their Graves

I promise: this is the last Phillips Library post for quite some time. It’s been six months since the Peabody Essex Museum admitted, under duress and only because they needed approvals from the Salem Historical Commission, that the Library was moving to a former toy factory off Route One in Rowley, Massachusetts. Since then there has been a public forum, lots of meetings, a succession of newspaper articles in the Salem News and the Boston Globe, a stern letter to the PEM from the President of the American Historical Association, and countless posts by me appealing, edifying, and scolding the Museum’s leadership. All to no avail: the Library–constituting a great part of Salem’s documentary history–is now in Rowley, and from what I hear (from a friend who is desperately trying to finish her Ph.D. dissertation–they didn’t tell her the Phillips was going to close last September either), is set to open sometime in June. Even the Google address (sort of) has changed, so that must be that, right?

Phillips Location

The address of the Phillips has changed but everything else remains the same: photographs of the interior and exterior, and its description: in the Essex Institute Historic District of Salem. If past practices are any indication, this half-correct entry will be up for quite some time: when the Phillips was moved to a temporary location in 2011 for the restoration of the building you see above, the address was never changed. And so I must say that the two men who are referenced in this entry—one visually and the other by name—are likely rolling in their graves after all that has happened. The photograph on the left is of Dr. Henry Wheatland (1812-1893) in one of the Phillips’ smaller reading rooms, around 1885. Dr. Wheatland dedicated his life to the Essex Institute, helping to found it through a merger of the Essex County Natural History Society and the Essex Historical Society in 1848, and serving later as the Institute’s Secretary, Treasurer, and President. As the finding aid to his papers in the Phillips Library asserts, Dr. Wheatland “devoted much of his life to ensuring that the Institute became a ‘permanent centre of influence for the enlightenment and instruction of the community'” and even continued to serve as its President after he was struck with paralysis at age 80, until his death. Wheatland was born in Salem and he died in Salem, and his will, like the wills of many donors to the Essex Institute and its library, left bequests to a Salem institution. I know he was referencing his desire that the Essex Institute’s library should be reference only in his 1893 will, but still: no books [should/to] be taken from the building except in extraordinary circumstances.

Wheatland collage                                                                                  New York Times, 1893.

The prominent and prolific Boston architect, Gridley J.F. Bryant (1816-1899), is another grave-roller, as he was the architect of the Italianate Daland house which has served as part of the Phillips Library in Salem for over a century and would certainly not want to be associated with the suburban industrial building that now constitutes the Phillips Library in Rowley. His name should be removed at once.

Phillips Library Rowley

800px-Bigelow_Chapel_-_080167pv One of Bryant’s more notable commissions: the Bigelow Chapel at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Library of Congress.

I can’t speak for all the people that put their trust in the predecessors of PEM, but fortunately it is a registered non-profit in Massachusetts and so its actions are subject to review by our Attorney General, Maura Healey. Several weeks ago a meticulous brief was delivered to her office formally requesting that the Public Charities Division review the actions of the PEM relative to the Phillips Library under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 12, Section 8H, regarding breaches of trust. The many “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library” who have emerged over these past six months are sending letters in support of this brief and its request for review, and you can too if you like: Office of the Attorney General/Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division/One Ashburton Place/ Boston, MA 02108.

Some other updates:

Contrary to what I reported here last week, the Working Group organized by Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe is still working: they will have more meetings. Their agenda still seems to be exclusively PEM-driven and they have a very odd understanding of what “collections” constitute, but they are still at work.

It looks like the votes are there for the Salem Historical Commission to approve the demolition of the 1966 “Stacks” building at the rear of Gridley Bryant’s Daland House. Everyone agrees that this space was insufficient to store the vast collections of the Phillips, and it is rather inelegant, as you can see below. When the library was moved in 2011 to a temporary location to accommodate the renovation and expansion of all of the Phillips buildings, it became apparent that this addition was essentially unworkable, given the integrated structure of its construction. The PEM leadership implied that they just learned this in 2017, and so were “forced” to abandon all of the Phillips buildings (and Salem) altogether, but we have learned of several mitigating plans from the intervening years, including those which specified the construction of a brand new “stacks” building. In any case, the present Phillips buildings are not ready to accept all the collections at this time, primarily due to the poor planning of PEM. Rowley can be yet another temporary facility for these materials, but we are continuing to work to bring them back to Salem.

Phillips Stacks The windowless “stacks” addition may soon be coming down. Salem News photograph.

And what about digitization? The fact that the PEM is at least a decade behind comparable institutions in the digitization of its holdings has become common knowledge: the institution itself has acknowledged its deficiency by including “digitization priorities” on the limited Working Group agenda. There is some progress: I noticed just the other day that several records of the Salem Witch Trials have been added to the limited digital collections of the Library. The bulk of Witch Trial records were digitized a decade ago by a team of scholars and have been available at a (much more contextual) site sponsored by the University of Virginia since that time, but there are hopes that the well-endowed PEM will someday provide a global scholarly community with more materials which will elucidate this often-told story, and so many more lesser-known ones.

I’m certainly moving on to other stories. After all, spring has finally arrived, the trillium are out, and there are places to go and more diverse and distant pasts to explore. If there are any new developments, I’ll post them here, but only if they are course-changing.

P.S. And thanks for your patience—especially those of you who are perhaps not quite so interested (obsessed) with this issue!


Rescinding the Rump

The official response to the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant admission to the removal of Salem’s historical archives to a storage facility in Rowley was the formation of a “Working Group” by Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe. In partnership, Ms. Driscoll and Mr. Monroe chose the members of this group, identified as “stakeholders”, from among Salem’s local officials and heritage and tourism organizations. I was wary from the very announcement of this group, because I believe that all of Salem’s residents are “stakeholders”, impacted equally by a short-sighted and disrespectful policy which removed the material heritage of a great city. (I also really, really, really dislike that divisive and disingenuous term). Nevertheless, I knew that there were well-intentioned and thoughtful people in this Working Group, so I hoped for the best. Now it appears that the work of the Group is complete: as the agenda for its third (and presumably last) meeting this week includes the item “Final Statement”, I assume it’s a wrap.

So what has been accomplished?  You don’t have to rely on my assessment: it’s all in the public statement issued on behalf of the Working Group on April 10. As a result of these “discussions” (one meeting was a meet-and-greet, the other a tour of the Rowley facility), the PEM has agreed to open Plummer Hall and the Saltstonall Reading Room of the former Phillips Library to the public as a “research facility” stocked with bound editions of the long-running Essex Institute journals the Essex Institute Historical Collections and American Neptune plus terminals that can be used to access “digital information from the Phillips Library”, very few items of which have been digitized!  In fact, one of the few things that the PEM has seen fit to digitize is the American Neptune, and the Essex Institute Historical Collections is available right down Essex Street at the Salem Public Library, so this concession (which was actually announced before the formation of the Working Group) is a joke, an insult, and an outrage.

WG Statement

After I heard that the Working Group was concluding its work, just yesterday, the first image that flew in my head was that of Oliver Cromwell marching into Parliament on April 20, 1653 and dissolving the powerless remnant (Rump) that was all that remained of the Long Parliament for which he had waged a revolution, and afterwards overtaken, with the famously paraphrased speech: You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go! (It was likely a far more colorful dismissal ). An ineffectual body, but yet the only semblance of “representative” government, disbanded just like that. I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who could make such a connection: it must be the April dates—and my preparations for my summer graduate course on early modern English history. Or it might be my desire to find refuge in the past when the present is so bleak.

Rump 1790 BM

Rump West

Rump 1885 Cassells

Rump Cromwell Great MenFour very different Cromwells dissolving the Rump Parliament on April 20, 1653: British Museum, 1790; Benjamin West, 1782, Montclair Museum of Art; and Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

So the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum remains resolute in their decades-long campaign to bury Salem’s history, successfully (so far) employing strategies of restricted access, the redeployment of resources, and a confusing (and likely very, very costly) renovation, aided very ably by the accommodations of our elected officials. There may be some external pressures from this point on, but I am so very sorry that those in positions of power and influence in historic Salem have chosen not to safeguard, much less fight for, its history.


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.

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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.

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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.

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