Category Archives: Current Events

Red Roofs

Patriots Day 2019 was not a very enjoyable day. It was certainly not as dreadful as Patriots Day 2013, but still a frightful day. I woke up to thunder, looked out at the dreary rain, made the decision not to drive to Lexington so I could walk the Battle Road as is my custom, did some errands, and then turned on the radio to hear the Marathon results and instead heard “Notre Dame is burning”.  And that was the story for the rest of the day: listening, watching (big mistake but I could not look away), and (towards the end of the day) drinking. I admire all historical architecture, but Gothic cathedrals are more than mere buildings: they symbolize the aspirations and abilities of an era and a civilization. Very early in my teaching career, I essentially turned my medieval survey into an “Age of Cathedrals” course, and I still teach through and around and with these monuments. At first reference that might sound like an approach that is simplistic and old-fashioned, but for me the cathedral has always been both a symbol and a conduit, connecting one to all the layers of medieval history, not just religious, but social, economic, political, cultural, and of course technological. Cathedrals can open up minds too: especially the minds of college students who are predisposed to think of the Middle Ages as merely “dark”,  and “backward”. It’s impossible to look at a cathedral and not be impressed by its creators, or maintain a presentist perspective.

aptopix-france-notre-dame-fire-20190415155934-12400800AP Photo by Thibault Camus

As the day wore on, I realized I was getting upset as much by the commentary and coverage as by the incessant fire. There was a lot of speculation, and little confirmation, and of course we could see the fire burning and burning and burning. So I turned everything off and went to bed. The next day, the fire had finally been stopped and Notre Dame was still standing: its roof and spire were gone but the bulk of its early Gothic expanse and vaulting, its bell towers, and even its trio of rose windows had been saved. I welcome the full report on the fire’s causes and damage because there is still a lot of contradictory information out there, but I learned a lot from a few select Twitter threads that found their way into my feed, mostly through architectural historians: about the protocol followed by the Parisian firefighters, put in place after the last time Notre Dame was ravaged during the French Revolution and sustained through two world wars, about the oak trees planted at Versailles after the last restoration of Notre Dame’s roof 160 years ago, and about the human chain created to rescue its treasures, with a fire-fighting chaplain serving as the essential link.  The combination of a still-standing Notre Dame, human heroism, and the resolute statement of President Macron reassured me quite a bit (French cathedrals have been owned by the state since 1905), but more than anything I am hopeful because of history: cathedrals were built over generations, in fits and starts, many sustained fire damage as well as human assaults but survived and were rebuilt. There are several precedents for the restoration of Notre Dame, but I think the most inspirational examples must be Reims Cathedral, which sustained devastating damage during World War I, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes, which was bombed heavily during World War II and severely damaged by a fire in 1972.

Cathedral CollageThe Cathedrals of Reims and Nantes in their present glorious condition. Photographs by Nicolas Janberg for Structurae.

The restoration of Reims, the most royal of French cathedrals, was an epic achievement. It sustained intense shelling by German forces outside of the city in September of 1914, setting fire to the wood scaffolding that was in place, and then the cathedral’s oak roof, which caved into the nave below. Reims lay in a state of semi-ruin for the rest of the war, and was bombed again in 1917 and 1918, thus attaining its status as a “martyred cathedral”. I inherited a book from my great aunt by the American illustrator George Wharton Edwards titled Vanished Halls & Cathedrals of France which was published at the height of the war. Reims is on the cover and inside, looking beautiful in his pre-war paintings, but the text reads like a eulogy: the catastrophe is so unbelievable that one cannot realize it…….Reims can never be restored to what it was before the bombardment. Let it rest thus….a sacred ruin—the scarred, pierced heart of France. He goes on a bit later: Let it remain….the living, standing record of an infamous crime. Consumed by fire, soaked in blood, Reims, which crowned and sheltered a hundred kings, has passed. Deleta est Carthago.

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Edwards Collage

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Vanished Halls Reims PC

The burning of Reims Cathedral after the severe bombardment by the Germans, 17-24 September 1914Edwards’ book and paintings; two 1914 postcards; Charles W. Wyllie, The Burning of Reims Cathedral after the Severe Bombardment of the Germans, 17-24 September 1914. From The Sphere, 7 December 1914.

Edwards would not get his wish. Reims would be restored after the war (with a good deal of American money) and it served as the site of the signing of the peace treaty which ended the second World War in Europe in May of 1945. Only a year before, and more than 300 miles to the east, the city and cathedral of Nantes sustained significant damage from Allied bombing in June of 1944, but the more serious threat to the latter was the fire that broke out in January of 1972 related to ongoing restoration on the roof. Indeed, the post-war restoration was barely completed by that time according to most accounts, but the “resuscitation” following the fire was shorter, and detailed in a wonderful short video you can view here. President Macron’s five-year plan is perhaps ambitious, but not impossible: it’s been done before.

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[The Angel of the Resurrection on the Roof of Notre-Dame, Paris]Nantes Cathedral in flames on the night of January 28, 1972, Museum of firefighters Loire-Atlantique. Hervio Fund; Charles Nègre, Angel of Resurrection at Notre Dame, 1853, Getty Museum.


The Forces Align

This past weekend was happening; the streets of Salem were full of tourists and the historical events in which I was somewhat involved came off very well: the Salem Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall and the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clever costumes and a joyful spirit imbued the former, while a packed house turned out for the latter—for fish, and a deep dive into this often-overlooked Atlantic trade which brought a lot of wealth to Salem and the North Shore. The Resistance Ball is kind of important to me for several reasons, so I’m very grateful to everyone who made it a success. It benefited Hamilton Hall, a beautiful historic hall with a slight endowment that has to work for a living: the more support the Hall gets from its fundraising activities the more it can support the community (as for example, by providing its ballroom to Salem High School for the Junior Prom free of charge on Friday night) and the fewer weddings it has to host. I live right next to the Hall and I was president of its Board of Trustees for six years. But more than all of that, this particular event represents a relatively unique attempt to showcase the comprehensive and the progressive forces in Salem’s history, rather than one singular dark event that serves (and provides) the basis for constant exploitation. This is a city in which the commercial symbol of that exploitation is situated in its chief city square, so an event that celebrates resistance to: British rule in particular, imperialism in general, segregation, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, inequality, let alone Star Wars, is very welcome. Hester Prynne was in attendance as well as a lightsaber-wielding Rey. There is always some power force which provokes resistance, so how universal is this theme?

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Forces 14Tried to get more juxtapositions of historical and modern dress but what can I say? I was enjoying the party! Above is my beautiful friend and a very talented seamstress, Louise Brown, in her own creation of course. Below is our committee (with a few conspicuous absences) with chair Michael Selbst in the middle, to the right of me! And then we have some swag…..thanks to all our sponsors too!

Resistance Ball Committee

Forces Swag

Saturday night to Sunday afternoon: from festivities to fish! Salem is so fortunate to have a National Park in its midst: the Salem Maritime National Historic Site is always the perfect host, the perfect partner, the sole steward of our maritime history with the retreat of the PEM. The symposium went off beautifully and I was particularly interested to see some maps I had never seen before in the presentation by Karen Alexander of the University of New Hampshire (including a 1774 map from the British Museum which shows a very-populated and strategic Salem). It’s always interesting to hear about how port cities actually work, and I thought that Xabier Lamikiz of the University of the Basque Country explained the inner (and outer) workings of Bilbao really well. It was kind of odd to be staring at a screen with sources from the Phillips Library while the Salem storage facility for the same was being dismantled just next door, but I doubt very many people in the crowd were aware of that dissonance.

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Forces AlignScenes from the Salt Cod for Silver Symposium, and the demolition of the Stacks next door.


Historic Happenings in Salem

As always, I’m excited for the Salem Film Fest commencing this weekend and running through most of next week, but next weekend will see two big events inspired by Salem’s dynamic 18th-century history: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall on Saturday the 6th, and “Salt Cod for Silver: Yankees, Basques, and the North Shore’s Forgotten Trade”, a symposium focused on greater Salem’s trade with the Basque port of Bilbao on Sunday the 7th. I wish every weekend in Salem could be like next weekend, highlighting history in creative, comprehensive, and collaborative ways. The Resistance Ball is co-sponsored by Hamilton Hall and the Leslie’s Retreat Committee, dedicated to the ongoing interpretation and commemoration of the event of February 26, 1775 in which a large group of Salem citizens foiled the attempt of a British regiment to confiscate concealed cannon in particular and the spirit of resistance in general, while the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium is co-sponsored by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem State History Department, Historic Beverly, the Marblehead Museum, and the Bilboko Itsasdarra Itsas Museoa (Bilbao Maritime Museum).

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Historical Flyer

I am going to both events and you should too if you are in our area: tickets for the ball are still available here, and the symposium is a first-come, first-seated event (the capacity is 200 at the Visitor Center). This is the second run for the Resistance Ball, and we hope to make it a regular occasion. Do not be deterred by fear of period dress: there will be some 18th-century dress (both reproductions and costumes) in attendance but also formal and creative garb. I prefer to be inspired by the spirit of resistance rather then the actual eighteenth-century event myself. I made a list of my favorite female resistors, and at the very top was Joan of Arc, but I do think this is an American history-themed event so I am forgoing armor in favor a toile dress with quite a modern, short cut: I guess I’m just going as myself, the perpetual PEM resistor! There will be period dancing, but again: do not be fearful: the caller from the last ball, whom we have engaged again, was an amazing instructor and so it was really easy and fun to participate.

Salem Resistance Ball

Salem Resistance Ball2There WILL be fiddlers—and dancing! (Not really sure who took these pictures at the last ball two years ago, sorry)

I’m excited about the symposium for several reasons. In terms of interpretation, it seems like all Salem trade is China trade and even a cursory glance at the sources contradicts that perception. Yet I imagine that China is still part of the picture. Years of teaching European and World History in the early modern era has familiarized me with the concept of the Chinese “Silver Sink”: the west wanted so many things from China, but all it really had to offer (before Indian opium) was American silver, the first truly global commodity, and consequently much of it ended up there. So North Shore merchants are trading are trading fish for silver, which I presume they are using to purchase Asian wares and commodities? A variation on the same theme, or did more silver stay in Salem rather than just flowing eastward? We shall see. Any research on this trade has got to be based on the rich sources in the Phillips Library, so it will be wonderful to hear about what has been mined in these treasures, particularly the papers of the Orne and Pickman families. (The Essex Institute used to publish such information: see the wonderful text by its librarian Harriet Tapley published in 1934, Early Coastwise and Foreign Shipping of Salem; a Record of the Entrances and Clearances of the Port of Salem, 1750-1769). And of course I’m also eager to discover the stance of Great Britain regarding this trade, particularly before the Revolution.

The Ornes

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Salem merchant Timothy Orne, flanked by his daughters Rebecca and Lois, in paintings he commissioned from Joseph Badger in 1757. The portraits of the girls (I have always loved Rebecca and her squirrel, so I took this opportunity to showcase her again, and Lois is the mother of the woman who lived in my house for its first few decades) are from the Worcester Art Museum, and the Orne’s portrait belongs to the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The Orne House at 266 Essex Street (here in a Frank Cousins photograph from the “Urban Landscape” collection at Duke University Library) is still standing, though much changed. Orne is a very good representative of Salem’s “codfish aristocracy”, with more than fifty ships in operation over his commercial career, sailing to the West Indies and Europe and carrying fish, spirits, molasses, cloth and other commodities, as well as slaves, in addition to a fleet of fishing ships.

Below: As I don’t think the technology of drying cod has changed over the centuries, I thought I’d add this photograph of a shop in Lisbon two weeks ago.

Cod in Lisbon


Slaves in the Hunt House

There were two prompts for today’s post, both of which came as I was getting ready for the spring semester, after a productive sabbatical in which I thought and wrote very little about Salem’s history. The first prompt was the wonderful recognition of the work of one of my colleagues, Dr. Bethany Jay, whose book (co-edited with Dr. Cynthia Lynn Lyerly of Boston College) Understanding and Teaching American Slavery won the prestigious James Harvey Robinson prize for the “most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public or educational purposes” at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The second prompt came from a former student of mine, now an archivist-in-training and public historian-by-passion, inquired as to the location of the remains of the burial ground of Salem’s Bulfinch-designed Almshouse on Salem Neck, a property which is now the site of a 1980s condominium development. I looked through the usual sources to try to help her, but then (as usual), got distracted: by this obituary in the Liberator, dated April 30, 1836.

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Here we can read of the death of a long-time resident of the Almshouse, centengenarian Flora Jeans, an African-American woman who was once the widow of Bristow Hunt, a slave belonging to Capt. Wm. Hunt, who resided at the corner of Lynde Street. At the time of the general emancipation of the slaves in New England, Bristow partook of the sweets of freedom, in common with others of his race, and in the elevation of his feelings consequent on his being placed on a level with his fellow men, he nobly fought for the liberties of his country and was killed in battle by the side of a connection of his master’s family, who is now living. Sigh. Yet another amazing Salem story, drawing me back in: this city’s African-American history, as well as its revolutionary history, and its nineteenth-century history, and virtually all of its history, is so minimized and marginalized because of the incessant drumbeat: 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692. 1692, 1692.

bucks of america mhsThe paint-on-silk “Bucks of America” flag in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1785-86, commemorating what is “believed to have been a Massachusetts militia company composed of African Americans and operating in Boston during the American Revolution, although no official records of the unit seem to exist”.

I don’t know much about American history; I began this blog partly because I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history because it seemed so overwhelmingly focused on the Witch Trials and I was curious about other eras and institutions. The last time I studied American history was in high school, where I can assure you I learned nothing about slavery and its myriad consequences. I avoided American history in college studiously, because it seemed so short and one-dimensional compared to the European and Asian history (I didn’t even think about African history). By the time I finished my doctoral program and started teaching I had learned a lot about slavery in the early modern Atlantic world, or about the slave trade, and I assumed that it formed a larger part of the secondary-school curriculum than when I was in high school. But that’s not the case, even now. Dr. Jay consulted with the Southern Poverty Law Center on their Teaching Toleration project, which surveyed 1000 American high-school seniors, 1700 history teachers, along with popular textbooks and state standards, in 2017 about their knowledge and presentation of slavery. The results were alarming, to say the least, and really surprising to me, although I suspect not as surprising to my Americanist colleagues: only 8% of high-school seniors identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War, few than one-third identified the 13th amendment as the formal end of slavery in the United States,  and less than half could define the “Middle Passage”. Eight percent.

I feel fortunate to have learned a lot about slavery—its structures, consequences, and abolition—from my colleagues as well as my students. It’s not an easy subject; I really would prefer to look at our founding fathers as heroes rather than hypocrites, believe me (but Martin Luther and both Cromwells are troublesome creatures too). I teach our capstone seminar, in which students write long research papers over the course of the semester, pretty regularly, and I let students choose whatever topic they like, within reason and with my qualifications. Because Dr. Jay is such a popular professor, I’ve supervised papers on slave children, anti-slavery societies, the circumstances surrounding the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, and The Liberator, among other related topics. So I’m not surprised to see such a detailed obituary of a poor African-American woman in 1836. Another popular professor in our department is Dr. Dane Morrison, who teaches the Colonial and Federal eras: he has inspired a full range of Revolutionary topics in my seminars, including one on African-American soldiers who fought for the American side despite the enticements of the British. So I’m not surprised to read about Bristow Hunt either: despite the flowery rhetoric in the obituary, I assume he was offered manumission in exchange for his military service, rather than absolutely, as slavery was not formally abolished in Massachusetts (by judicial review) until 1783. I don’t really know this to have been the case, but the fact that he died by the side of a connection of his master’s family is pretty telling. I wish I knew more about Bristow—and Flora—and their lives rather than just their deaths. I wish we all knew more about them, and I’m a bit embarrassed of my previous preoccupation on the house in which Bristow and others were enslaved. I’ve always been fascinated by this first-period house, which was demolished during the Civil War. It survives in paintings and photographs, neither of which offer us any insights into what went on inside.

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hunt-house-on-washington-and-lynde-streets-salem-hneCirca 1857 photograph of the Hunt House in Frank Cousins’ and Phil Riley’s Colonial Architecture in Salem (1919); undated drawing, Historic New England.

The antiquarian approach focuses on the house, on physical remainders rather than social history. So I was being an antiquarian, just like Sidney Perley, who wrote in the Essex Antiquarian [Volume II, 1898] that William Hunt (whom he does not call Captain) died in 1780 possessed of the “mansion house”, bake house, barn and lot; in the division of his real estate in 1782, the buildings and eastern portion of the lot were assigned to his son Lewis Hunt [who was] a baker, and had his shop in the front end of the house”. When William Hunt died in 1780, slavery was still technically legal in Massachusetts despite its brand-new constitution’s provision that “all men are born free and equal, and have….the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties”. And in the early 1770s, when the public discourse calling for freedom and condemning tyranny was intense and incessant, he placed a series of advertisements in the Salem papers offering a reward for the return of another of his slaves, Cato. This much we do know.

slavery 1771 essex gazette may 28Essex Gazette, May 28, 1771.


Let There be Light

Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as if Halloween was spilling over into Christmas this year in Salem, with “Haunt the Halls” and “Grave Tidings” markets offering up dark wares and bats popping up in nearly every shop I entered: adorning jewelry, candles, and walls. Now I really do like bats, but they are not my creature of choice for this particular season; I would rather see deer, rabbits and sheep, squirrels and foxes—and fluffy fake stuffed versions of the latter rather than the taxidermy example I encountered at one downtown shop, right alongside a box of bones and more bats (real stuffed). Thankfully I was able to find light in several other shops with more cheery merchandise, the city’s bustling restaurants, and all along the streets, with so many houses lit up for the season: because we have quite enough darkness at this time of year, thank you very much. I have wanted to do more posts featuring Salem at night for quite some time, but my photographs never turn out very well. I took all the advice that was offered on the web, and began my photo safari at dusk as recommended, and I think I came up with some pretty good shots, but for every image you see below there are about six or seven blurrier examples. I felt a bit voyeurish sneaking up on all these Christmas trees but that’s why they are in the window, right? And all those lights are why Christmas is so great in the city–much more so than silver bells these days.

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And a blur of red: Lunch for Santas and Paxton’s penguins at dusk and later.Santa Lunch

Light RedMerry Christmas!


The Christmas Ball at Hamilton Hall

It is formally called the “Holiday Dance” now, but I always think of it as the Christmas Dance or better yet, the Christmas Ball, held next door at Hamilton Hall since whenever. I’ve been going for decades, and it really never gets old for me. I remember well my first attendance, clad in some old Laura Ashley velvet frock, when appeared before me a woman in the most elegant vintage black gown, from the 1930s I think, and I immediately thought: I must up my game. I’ve tried to do so every since, and this very same woman, clad in a very different–but equally elegant–gown from India, was one of the dance patronesses this year. Yes, there are patronesses (and for the last few years patrons) to whom we bow and curtsey, escorted before them by ushers. There’s an amazing traditional punch which led to the loss of several Sundays in my past, but now I’m too smart (experienced) to imbibe, and a rather loose “grand march” at the end of the evening. I was in bed by that time, so no pictures, sorry.

Ham Hall Exterior Day

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HH Christms Dance

This is a very traditional event, but not an exclusive one. Anyone can go: well, as many as can fit into the Hall. In years past, I remember smaller crowds but last night was definitely a crush. This event, along with a lecture series on world affairs that began right after World War II, is one of two major fundraisers for the Hall, which is primarily maintained through revenues from weddings and a more recent membership initiative. As a next-door neighbor, I would rather that the Hall was a little less busy, frankly (although the weddings are limited to 25 per year and there are none in July and August), but I know that it has to work for its living. It was built by subscription and maintained by its “proprietors” until the 1980s, when it was transformed into a non-profit. Everyone turned in their shares, but these were just paper: not an endowment. I’m really interested in how the “Proprietors of the South Buildings” (which included not only the Hall but Samuel McIntire’s majestic South Church across the street, which burned down in 1903) conducted their business: all the corporation’s records, like those of every Salem organization, are in the collection of the Phillips Library but as the shares were held privately you often see them on ebay or at ephemera sales. There were various management companies that ran the Hall and employed caterers and that famous “conductor of affairs” John Remond, who is announcing some major redecorations in 1844 below. Just before Christmas in 1850, the gaslights were turned on at Hamilton Hall, the very same chandelier and sideburners that shone so brilliantly via electricity last night.

Hamilton Hall Certificates Collage

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Hamilton Hall Gas

Hamilton Hall SHeila FoleyI love this view of the Hamilton Hall ballroom, with its “Russian” mirrors and green chandelier, by artist Sheila Foley: see more of her live event paintings here


The Year of Lost Archives

I must interrupt my festive holiday posts to mark a somber anniversary today: a year ago a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum admitted that there were no plans to reopen the long-shuttered Phillips Library in Salem, and that its archives and texts were soon to be relocated to a consolidated Collection Center in Rowley, in response to questions from members of the Salem Historical Commission. This admission was historic in a dual sense: it concerned history, the collected history of generations of Salem’s families and institutions, entrusted to an institution which couldn’t even be bothered to announce their removal, and it marked a moment in which Salem’s historic identity could now be cast in considerable doubt. It also triggered a series of responses and events which revealed so much to me about how history–and access to history—is perceived and valued in Salem. I was going to write an anniversary post anyway, just to wrap up this dismal year, but then an extraordinary coincidence manifested itself, and now I have a comparative format for my retrospective review. It happens that not only has my adopted hometown lost its archives, the hometown of my youth is on the verge of losing its as well! I feel like the personification of some powerful archival curse.

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Essex Institute IncorporationMr. James Kences of York, Maine protesting the imminent removal of Old York’s archives to a collections center in nearby Kittery, utilizing the same by-law precedent that we’ve employed here in Salem. Photo of Mr. Kences by Rich Beauchesne/Seacoastonline.

This may seem like an apples and oranges comparison with the only link being my personal interest, as the Peabody Essex Museum is a large, multi-faceted and well-endowed institution of international stature and the Museums of Old York constitute a local heritage organization with far fewer resources, but I think there are some interesting contrasts, particularly in the words and actions of the interested parties. Salem (1626) and York (1624) are also both venerable colonial settlements, with historical influence beyond their municipal boundaries. The Old York move is mandated by the sale of an old bank building in the center of town for redevelopment: not only have Old York’s plans been completely transparent since the publication of its strategic plan in 2015, but its Director, Joel Lefever, publicly acknowledged that York residents had the right to “raise questions” about the relocation of the archives out of town and even applauded the colorful protest of Mr. Kences. Compare this attitude and these statements to those of the now-retiring PEM Executive Director Dan Monroe: There was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand (Boston Globe, January 13, 2018).

Salem Hex

Old York’s decision to sell a downtown administrative building to focus resources on its historic buildings further afield was dictated by economic necessity and made in collaboration with the Town of York, which is embarking on a York Village revitalization project; the PEM’s decision to relocate the Phillips Library was a choice, not a necessity, made in isolation and opacity. Several organizations which had placed items on deposit in the Library, including the Salem Athenaeum and the Pickering House, were not even notified that their materials were to be relocated out of Salem. It was also revealed during the many hearings before the Historical Commission following the December 6 admission that the PEM had failed to file a master plan with the city of Salem, contrary to municipal regulations. While Salem residents are always in the dark when it comes to the PEM; I do hope our Planning Department knows more!

PEM Expansion PlanA romantic rendering of what might have been—if the PEM had fulfilled its promises to develop the Salem Armory and preserve the Phillips Library: not sure about the new situation of the John Ward House but it’s been moved once before. Not sure of the source or date either–I found it unlabeled on social media. Obviously the PEM went in quite a different direction.

There has also been a stark contrast in the reactions of municipal officials in York and Salem. Apparently there is no avenue to avoid the relocation of York’s archives to Kittery for the short term, but both the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen seem committed to finding a way for them to return. In an article in the York Weekly by Deborah McDermott, Town Manager Steve Burns allowed that there was no place suitable for the archives in York at present, But long term, the town I believe has an obligation to the heritage of the town to see if we can do something. This does not satisfy the passionate Mr. Kences, but I would be thrilled to hear a similar sentiment spoken in Salem: an obligation to the heritage of the town. For her part, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll never questioned publicly either the preservation-in-Rowley vs. decomposition-in-Salem scenario sold by PEM or its place-detached vision of history, and celebrated the Museum’s “investment in history” at the opening of the Collection Center in Rowley this past July. I do hope that the Museum makes a considerable investment in Salem’s history in the forms of library staff and digitization: at present (and as has been the case for some time) its most essential materials on commercial and cultural encounters in East Asia, so very valuable for the understanding of both local and world history, are accessible only behind a very expensive paywall at the digital publisher Adam Matthew and so inaccessible to Salem’s residents—and Salem students. While Salem’s history has been packaged as a digital “product”, the old Essex Institute buildings which once housed it remain dark and empty.

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There are also some interesting comparisons to be made regarding the quest for institutional and municipal vitality: the goal of both the PEM and Old York as well as their host communities. Old York’s archives are just that, historical archives, whereas the Phillips Collections of PEM constitute a large and multi-dimensional library, constituting myriad print and manuscript materials. It’s a bit difficult to see how the former collection could foster the development of a lively cultural community in York Village, but a Phillips Library returned to its original location could enhance Salem’s already vibrant cultural scene in many ways and expand its own community in the process. Libraries are meant to be used, and library collections are different than curatorial collections: the consolidation of both in a remote Collection Center–inaccessible via public transportation–may make sense from an administrative point of view, but it can only handicap the former in terms of its essential function. Just as I hope for more digitization of Phillips materials, I also hope that researchers are flocking to Rowley, but as yet I don’t see any evidence of the sorts of activities that are associated with other research libraries like those of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and (most familiar to me) the Folger Shakespeare Library: exhibits, events, brown bag talks, teacher workshops, crowdsourced transcription projects. It is early days for Rowley’s Phillips Library, so maybe these will come, but I believe such engagement would evolve far more easily in Salem’s Phillips Library, enlightening a dark stretch of Essex Street in the process.

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Anniversary 5In my open letter to the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum from nearly a year ago, I focused on Nancy Lenox Remond, because I wanted to emphasize the connection between place and history. I couldn’t imagine a better example of someone whose history was made by Salem and who made Salem’s history in return! Mrs. Remond and her husband John were the resident caterers at Hamilton Hall and also operated several other businesses in downtown Salem. There were organizing members of Salem’s African-American church and abolitionist societies, and they advocated successfully for the desegregation of Salem’s schools. They raised eight children in Salem, among them the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond, for whom a seaside park in Salem is named. Here’s a photograph of Mrs. Remond and the Lafayette plaque at Hamilton Hall–which references a famous banquet which she and her husband John prepared. I didn’t understand a year ago, and I still don’t understand now, why the records of the lives and work of these extraordinary people, and all of the extraordinary people who made Salem, have to be located in Rowley.


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