Category Archives: Salem

African-American History at the Phillips Library

On the occasion of the Martin Luther King holiday here in Salem and across the country, I thought I would highlight some sources for African-American history in the major repository for local history in our region, which is of course the PEM’s Phillips Library. I am aware of several scholars interested in various aspects of Salem’s rich African-American history: in the community, at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and at Salem State University: my colleague Bethany Jay’s bookUnderstanding and Teaching American Slavery, is serving as a resource for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative on slavery, and two of our graduate students received SPLC research fellowships last year. Bethany’s work is national in scope, but I don’t know how anyone interested in Salem’s African-American history could possibly engage in research, given the present closure of the library, the restriction of hours and staff before that, and the decade-long disinterest in digitization. That said, the digitized catalog reveals some amazing sources, including the papers of the Waters family (MSS 92), members of which were actively engaged in both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation ownership, as well as records of Salem’s various abolitionist societies, the records of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, various diaries, lists and logbooks, the Remond family papers, and two letters from the author, poet, educator and activist Charlotte Forten Grimké to John Greenleaf Whittier (which I’m not sure are available anywhere else, certainly not in this 1911 collection of Whittier’s correspondence, published in Salem). Unfortunately the finding aid for the Whittier letters refers to Forten incorrectly as a former slave: she was in fact a “free woman of color” sent by her relatively affluent and connected Philadelphia family to Salem to receive an integrated education in the Salem public schools (while living with the Remond family) after which she enrolled in the Salem Normal School (the precursor of SSU), as its first African-American student, in 1855. Just before her graduation a year later, she was summoned to the Principal’s office to hear the happy news that she was to be offered a teaching position at the Epes School on Aborn Street Court. The entry in her wonderful journal cannot contain her excitement: in the conservative, aristocratic old city of Salem!!! Wonderful indeed it is!…..Can it be true?

AA Phillips collage

Charlotte Forten

AA Phillips Liberator Forter 1856 Aug 1

The records of the country’s first female abolitionist society, the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (of which Forten was a member), are in the Phillips Library, as are those of the Salem Lyceum, which hosted the Society’s lecture series, as well as those of many other Salem organizations. A cabinet photo of Charlotte Forten [Grimké], c. 1878, New York Public Library, and a story on Forten in The Liberator, shortly after her appointment in 1856.

In the broad sweep of Salem’s African-American history, as in its general history, there are moments of achievement and pride and moments of disgrace and regret. Locally, we are accustomed to hearing about Salem’s glorious China trade but not its more abhorrent exchanges. But we appear to be in the midst of a Renaissance in the study of American slavery, with the impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North subject to particular revision and reexamination. PEM curator Gordon Wilkins’ reexamination of two prized colonial portraits that have been in the Museum’s collection since 1878 views Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch, the former a very active slave trader, in a new light, reflected by this revisionist history.

Fitch Portraits

Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch in Peabody Essex Museum’s American art galleries (photo courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum).

Wilkins asserts that PEM is committed to examining overlooked histories embodied in the objects that comprise our vast collections, and one hopes that this commitment will one day extend to the papers in the vast collections of the Phillips. Because there is a lot more to learn, and a lot less to overlook. I’m going to close with the comments of one of our graduate students at SSU, Thomas Landers (because I find that engaged graduate students are always very good at telling us what they–and us–need), in reference to the Waters-owned ship Abeona, which engaged in the slave trade between Senegal and Cuba in the 1790s. There’s a court case that sheds some light on the Abeona’s trade but its owner’s papers “sit locked away among the documents from other Salem families which traded in human flesh–names such as Fairfield, Smith, Ropes, Crowninshield, Grafton–in the Phillips Library collections, threatened to be removed from the city to which we owe their creation and preservation”.


Choice vs. Necessity

Last night’s public forum in the atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum, in which the museum leadership presented their arguments for why the Phillips Library collections “must” go to Rowley and a large crowd thrust and parried in opposition, was dramatic, to say the least. I’m going to try to present a relatively objective summary here, but given my bias, I will probably fail. Nevertheless I haven’t quite figured out what went on last night, so I need to process it a bit, and this is how I process. Essentially Museum CEO Dan Monroe, who offered no apologies for the disrespectful and reluctant admission of the Rowley relocation just a month ago, presented a rather straightforward point of view, with very few nuances, that the Phillips collections “must” be housed in Rowley, along with all of the physical objects not on display, because there is no room for them in Salem. Regarding the library collections, this necessity flows from the fact that the “stacks”/vault addition to one of the existing Phillips buildings is “impossible” (definitely Mr. Monroe’s favorite word of the evening) for storage and “habitation”. There was no serious discussion of rebuilding the stacks addition, or of utilizing the Armory building next door: both are “impossible” so it is absolutely necessary that the library go to Rowley. The conflation of the Library materials and the physical collections overemphasizes the “impossibility” of keeping the former in Salem. Mr. Monroe and his colleagues were also very consistent in their assertions that preservation is their most important priority, and must trump accessibility and location. This is a very effective argument, as no one could possibly want to see these important materials rotting away (or under water, as one supporter of the museum argued vehemently–drawing attention to Salem’s vulnerable coastline but not to the fact that all of the PEM’s buildings, including the one it is building now, are in the path of this inevitable destruction).

PEM Forum Mr. Monroe at the PEM forum last night.

There were some very positive things about the forum: the large and diverse crowd, of which most, but not all, seemed to be in opposition to the Phillips-removal plan, the attendance of Salem’s mayor, state representative and state senator, all of whom stayed for the entire long evening, and several substantive and passionate comments. I’m grateful that the PEM even hosted the forum: they didn’t have to (or maybe they did for public relations purposes). But I saw or heard no dialogue; disconnect instead ruled the night. From my perspective, the disconnect stemmed from the fact that the Museum is currently in the midst of a 200 million expansion plan funded by a 650 million “advancement” campaign, so it seemed quite obvious that they were choosing the Rowley path rather than resorting to it out of necessity. They have the means to tear down that defunt stacks addition and start fresh: they just don’t want to. There were various attempts by the crowd to extract an admission of this choice by Mr. Monroe and his colleagues, with no success. The other source of disconnect related to the important issue of accessibility, both physical and digital. Mr. Monroe focused almost exclusively on the former, and asserted that Salem residents must sacrifice “convenience” for preservation several times; he would not accept any responsibility for the PEM’s glacial pace of digitization (a perfect word I am stealing from the tweet of a very prominent early Americanist) because digitization is “very, very expensive”—again, this coming from the CEO of an institution that has raised 650 million dollars over the last few years. There was a third source of disconnect that I can’t quite articulate yet—but will try to in my next post (I know I promised I would move on and away from the Phillips–but I just can’t yet, sorry). We did hear confirmation that the beautiful Phillips Library reading room will be open and accessible to the public at some point, but what will be in it I do not know. The new chief of collections and library director, John D. Childs, indicated that they were open to conversations about the “non-unique” (and presumably less vulnerable) items in the collections, so I am going to take some small measure of hope from this statement–but of course I want the unique items too!

PEM forum 2 The shuttered Phillips Library.


Public History

I have to admit that, having written this blog for seven years (unbelievable–seems like a month!), an enterprise I undertook because I wanted to indulge my own curiosity but also learn to write less for an academic audience and more for the general public, and serving as chair of a department that has a very popular concentration in Public History, I never really understood what public history was until I became involved with this movement to resist the relocation of the Phillips Library away from Salem. Now I know that history is a commodity, for lack of a better word, that has limitless value, and also the power to unite all sorts of people: young, old, natives, newcomers, liberals, conservatives (well, this is Massachusetts) and those who fit into none of these categories. It’s hard to define this commodity which is also a force, because people have very different ideas about what history is: for some it is all about family, for some it is all about civic pride, for some it is about sacrifice, for others it is about heroism, for some it is about books, for others images, or things: for all, heritage. I’m used to presenting history, both here and in my professional life, but this has been a month of listening to people talking about their history. And with each assertion about their history, their power grew, eventually turning a one-way announcement (admission, really) into a two-way dialogue. Tomorrow night, we will see the very public acknowledgement of that dialogue at two events in two locales: a forum at the Peabody Essex Museum in which the leadership will lay out their plans for the (ware-)housing of the Phillips historical and literary collections along with all of the material objects not on view in a consolidated stewardship/storage facility in Rowley occuring at the same time as the Salem City Council will debate a resolution calling for the PEM to work towards “keeping Salem’s treasured history in Salem”.

Phillips Forum with border

Phillips Friends Letter with border

Phillips ResolutionFlyer for the 1/11 forum, position letter of newly-revived “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library”(which is so new that it is homeless but I think it is going to wind up here) & Salem City Council resolution (converted pdfs–sorry about the lack of clarity).

What a night! I am both excited and nervous, but ultimately grateful to be part of this community conversation about something that so many people recognize as important: and this very community as well. I will report back on the day after, and then I promise to move onto some other subjects, patient readers (although I suspect that this conversation will go on for some time).

Phillips mss447_b3f8_seriesi_womantwoboys Social ServicesOne of my very favorite photographs from the Phillips collections that I’ve found while DREDGING every and all online sources this month: from the anniversary of the Children’s Friends & Family Services, Inc. (Phillips MSS 447), 1839-2003, which began life as the Salem Seamen’s Orphan Society and has 54 boxes of records on deposit in the Phillips.

 


Snowbomb

A brief intermission from #saveSalemshistory for some snow pictures, because it was a pretty big storm, or “bomb cyclone”! Back to the Phillips in a few days: remember the big PEM forum is on January 11th @ 6 pm in the museum’s Morse Auditorium. 

So we survived the year’s first big snowstorm, officially designated Grayson and categorized as a “bomb cyclone” by meteorologists because of the coincidence of a steep, explosive drop in atmospheric pressure. It snowed all day and gusty winds gave the streets of Salem a blizzard-like appearance at times, but that was not as scary as the flooding that occurred on the coast and in several low-lying areas reclaimed from rivers and ponds. The Willows looked positively apocalyptic at high tide midway during the storm, and the storm surge covered Derby Wharf for a while. The sea captains who built my street 200 years ago clearly chose high ground for a reason (well, multiple reasons really), so it was a much less dramatic scene out my window for most of they day, and in the late afternoon I emerged for a quick walk and a much longer stint of shoveling.

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Snowcylone 8Chestnut and Essex Streets above; below, a panorama of Derby Wharf at high tide which was passed around by a bunch of architects yesterday, but I think can be attributed to ©Kirt Rieder. Beautiful but scary!

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Caretaking and Curating

As frustrating as this past month has been with the prospect of Salem’s history being extracted by the relocation of the Phillips Library it has also been interesting, as I dove into the depths of its catalog so that I could develop a full appreciation of what we will be losing. I’m not an American historian so it was never an essential repository for me, and the life of this blog roughly corresponds with its closure. When I first moved to Salem I would research house histories and a few other things at the Phillips, but I was never truly aware of how rich and vast its collections were until just this past month: now I am awed. And as I discover and rediscover these holdings, I keep coming up with questions about their utility and accessibility: the slow process of digitization at the PEM remains confounding, but now I’m wondering if there is even an institutional interest in these materials. There is no question in my mind that the PEM is a responsible caretaker of its Phillips collections, but is there, or will there ever be, any enthusiasm for their interpretation? Historical records are not preserved merely for the sake of mothballing: they need to come alive through ongoing interpretation and curation. According to their messaging, the PEM hopes to attract scholars to its “state-of-the-art Collections Center” in Rowley via its digitized catalog, but does it have any interest in curating its own collections?  We all thought that the last library exhibition, 2011’s Unbound: Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM, was meant to tide us over until the reopening of the Phillips in 2013, but perhaps it was indeed the last library exhibition.

Libraries comparable to the Phillips, as well as those with far less resources, have presented wonderful exhibitions over the past few years, both online and in their reading rooms. In lieu of the lists of books which I usually produce at this time of the year, I thought I’d list some library exhibitions from the recent past and present, set forth for the purposes of comparison and perhaps inspiration.

John Carter Brown Library, Global Americana: The Wider Worlds of a Singular Collection (2017). Given the PEM’s global interests and the nature of their collections, a similar exhibition would be easily within reach, really popular, and a great teaching resource. We’re applying for an NEH grant on the trade between Salem and Spain at SSU, so this particular exhibit item, in which a very young nation assesses its trade, caught my eye—but it’s probably the least colorful item in the exhibition.

Curatorian Global Americana JCB

Secretary of State’s Report on the Cod and Whale Fisheries, 1791, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

 

American Antiquarian Society, Louis Prang and Chromolithography. Artist, Innovator, and Collaborator (2015). This exhibition–archived online–features several works by Salem-born artist Fidelia Bridges. The PEM has some great lithographic images, including an amazing Prang process proof that was featured in Unbound—it was really the highlight of the highlights.

Curatorial Prang

L. Prang & Co., “Dipper missing,” Louis Prang: Innovator, Collaborator, Educator. American Antiquarian Society.

 

Harvard University Map Collection, Pusey Library, Look but Don’t Touch: Tactile Illusions in MapsEveryone loves maps, and the PEM has a great collection, especially of local maps. A chorographical exhibition would be very interesting, but perhaps a bit too local for the cosmopolitan PEM.

birds-eye-eastern-railroad

“Bird’s-eye View of the Eastern Railroad Line to the White Mountains and Mt. Desert.” Boston: Rand Avery Supply Co., 1890. Harvard University Library.

 

Delaware Art Museum, The Cover Sells the Book: Transformations in Commercial Book Publishing, 1860-1920 (2017). A wonderful exhibition of notable bookbindings in the collection of the Museum’s Helen Sloan Farr Library & Archives. Thanks to the Phillips librarians’ tweets, pins, and instagram posts, we know that they preside over a treasure chest of beautiful bookbindings, and could easily mount a similar exhibition (or three or four).

Curatorial Del

Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum.

 

Baker Library, Harvard University Business School, The Art of American Advertising, 1865-1910 (ongoing). This digital exhibition of American advertising ephemera is an amazing resource that I visit often. Given the Essex Institute’s all-encompassing policy of collecting old bills, letters, and account books, books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, directories, etc…in fact, all articles which now or in the future may throw light on our history, or manners and customs”, there is no shortage of similar materials in the Phillips Library.

Curatorial Baker

Famous (or infamous) “Antikamnia” Skeleton Calendar for 1901, by Louis Crusius, a St. Louis pharmacist and physician. Baker Library, Harvard University.

Phillips Ephemera

Merrill & Mackintire Calendar for 1884, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

 

And finally, photography, and a plea. The Phillips collections include the photographs and papers of two local photographers who established national reputations over their careers: Frank Cousins (1851-1925) and Samuel V. Chamberlain (1895-1975). While many of their photographs were published over their lifetimes and after, others remain entombed in the Phillips. Photography lends itself to digital exhibition particularly, so I’m really hoping that the PEM can release some of these images in that (or any!) form, forever.

Chamberlain collage

Samuel V. Chamberlain at work in France and New England, Phillips Library MSS 369, Peabody Essex Museum.

 


Art vs. History: a False Dichotomy

Over the last three weeks, as I have listened to the public discourse surrounding the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant announcement that it was planning to house the Salem-dominant collections of its research arm, the Phillips Library, in a vast collections center (encompassing both archives and objects) in Rowley, I have heard a constant refrain: the PEM doesn’t want to be a history museum. They are only interested in art (That’s why they are taking/hiding our history away). I’m not sure this is entirely true, but if it is, it is a stance that is based on a false dichotomy, because these two disciplines are not incompatible or in competition: art is history and if done well, history is an art.

Art and History Vermeer.jpg Vermeer’s Art/Allegory of Painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum: featuring Clio, the Muse of History. 

Several PEM exhibitions in recent memory have featured historical components, from the wonderful Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style (2008) to Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (2015) and even the Victoria & Albert traveling show, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (2016-2107) featured a few placards on the regional shoe industry when it made its pitstop at the PEM. But I can understand why my fellow Salemites feel that their history is being ignored by the very institution that has the responsibility of stewarding it. The Museum seems to have an ever-increasing appetite for gallery space, always justified by its large collections, yet we seem to see more of other Museum’s collections in these showy spaces. The Phillips print and manuscript collections, along with all of those unseen objects, are now on a slow boat to Rowley: one wonders if it was possible to move the historic houses also entrusted to the museum whether they would be on their way too. I don’t really think so, but I like to force the connection between textual and material history.

ropes-renovMoving the Ropes Mansion back a few feet in the 1890s.

As I looked back at PEM exhibitions over the past fifteen years or so, all of which I have seen and enjoyed, I gradually came to an awareness that the PEM does indeed “like” history, just not local history. There has been a great emphasis on Asian history certainly, and European history, and Native American history, but local history, not so much. I wonder why this is so, given the museum’s focus on connections: doesn’t it want to connect with its local audience? All of its engagement initiatives seem to have been focused on entertainment rather than exhibits: the monthly Thursday PEM/PM events, free to all Salem residents, but ending this very month. Everyone says: I enjoyed it [insert exhibition, particularly blockbuster variety] for an hour or so, but that’s it. No need to go back again. I myself clung to just one poster in the recent Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style exhibitionBoston-published, depicting the watery grave of Lusitania victims.

pem-enlist-loc Library of Congress.

So let’s work with this image–its meaning and its power. We are in the midst of the centenary of World War I, a major turning point in world and American history. Museums across the country (and across the Atlantic, of course) have produced exhibitions focused on this epic event, including art museums like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The latter’s World War I and the Visual Arts encompasses all artistic mediums to present a cultural history of the conflict drawn from their own collection, while the MFA’s show focused on propaganda and recruiting posters similar to Fred Spear’s evocative Enlist above. Despite 18 boxes of World War materials in the collection of the Phillips Library (processed with the support of a federal grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission but currently inaccessible and undigitized), the PEM offered up shoes, wearable art, horror movie posters and ocean liners in the centennial year of 2017: all fun and visually-stimulating exhibitions, but can we really engage in a thoughtful exploration of the human experience through these topics?

Art and History HassamChilde Hassam, Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I see the PEM’s reluctance to delve into local heritage as tragic for Salem, which is left to the devices of market-driven Halloween “history”, but also for the museum itself, which is losing out on an obvious way to connect to its local audience on which its future is surely dependent at least in part—it can’t be all about big donors, can it? (Maybe it is). In its rationale for not reopening the Phillips Library in Salem, the PEM pointed to declining patronage by Salem residents, but this was surely a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by declining hours and programming based on the library’s collections. A reopened and revitalized Phillips Library reading room, serving as a nexus for introspective examinations of greater Salem’s experiences in the contexts of global, national, and local history, could serve as a draw for both locals and tourists. Even though history may seem “dusty” to some, the public’s interest in heritage is both universal and increasing: with many state and local history museums reporting upswings in attendance all over the country in the last few years and record-setting crowds flocking to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in just its first year. And here in Massachusetts, with a statewide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing in the works for 2020, the Museum–and its Library– in the midst of the other prominent Puritan colony will find itself very much in demand.

MA400-Mayor-Panel A panel of mayors, including Kim Driscoll of Salem, at the Massachusetts 400 Forum in 2016.


A Brief Christmas Break

A brief Christmas break and then it’s right back to Save-the-Phillips-Library-for-Salem business! But I had a very visual Christmas so I wanted to post some pictures. We were a party of only 6 adults this year, and so we decided to divide our holiday into Christmas Eve in Boston and Christmas Day in Salem, spending the eve between at the Fairmount Copley Plaza, just to top off my year of heritage hotels. Lots of eating and drinking and walking in town, after which we went to the 11 pm services at Trinity Church and then fell into our king-size beds across the street. We woke up to a very snowy morning, and managed to navigate our way to Salem without mishap. Presents, (much) more food and drink and then it was over. So much preparation, so little time, every year, but let’s hope the Christmas spirit prevails for a while longer.

Christmas Eve in Boston:

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Christmas Day in Salem:

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