Category Archives: Salem

PEM: Praise and Public History

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

Librarian collage

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

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

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

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

Before_the_Fire__Salem_Neighborhood_North_Side_of_Broad_Street

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


Locked Away

So many materials, locked away in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, undigitized, unheralded, unshared, undervalued and underutilized. Perhaps the digitized catalog will bring scholars to Rowley but they will have to be on the hunt: the Museum clearly does not have the inclination to blaze the trail. This was not always the case: a century and more ago, both of the PEM’s predecessors, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, were determined to share the stories of their collections to as wide an audience as was then possible. This week, like many historically-minded people in Massachusetts, I’m thinking about the insurgent American Revolution: that’s what mid-April is all about here. We have the 382nd Annual Muster on Salem Common this weekend along with a Glover’s Regiment encampment over in Marblehead, and then all the events associated with Patriots Day in Lexington and Concord on Monday. As has become my habit, I looked through the catalog of the Phillips to see what I am missing–what all of us are missing— about the historical significance of this time. The diaries always catch my attention (the Phillips is particularly rich in diaries) and one looked really interesting: that of William Russell of Boston, a Tea Partier and later clerk to the dashing privateer Captain John Manley, commander of the Continental ship Jason, which was captured in 1779. He then became a prisoner of war and recorded conditions as such in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England during the duration of the war. There is a list of his fellow prisoners as well as the ships from whence they came, and additional notes and annotations by his grandson James Kimball, a Salem resident who published the diary and presented his manuscript copy to the Essex Institute, where Ralph Paine mined it for several chapters in his 1908 book The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem; the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement, calling it “by far the most complete and entertaining account of the experience of the Revolutionary privateersmen and naval seamen who suffered capture that has been preserved”. Here we have an example where (I think–I stand ready to be corrected by historians of the Revolution) an antiquarian and annotated copy has been more influential than the original source, which is part of the Boston Public Library’s collection of American Revolutionary War Manuscripts.

Locked Away Journal

Locked Away Russell Warrant 1779

Locked Away Captain_John_Manley,_wood_block,_Peabody_Essex_MuseumThe opening page of William Russell’s wartime diary & the warrant for his arrest in December of 1779, Boston Public Library; woodcut broadside illustration of the famous Captain Manley of Marblehead, Peabody Essex Museum.

If this is true, it will not be so for much longer: the Boston Public Library is committed to digitization, collective transcription and open access while the PEM clearly is not (yet, we have hopes), so the primary source will eclipse the copy if it has not already. I’m drawn to the PEM Russell diary because it speaks to the activities and inclinations of his grandson, James Kimball, almost as much as it does to William Russell himself, and also to the role played by the Essex Institute in later nineteenth-century Salem. Around the time of the Centennial, James Kimball, a former Salem shoemaker and current county commissioner, clearly devoted himself to the chronicling of the Revolutionary activities of his grandfather, giving public talks at both the Salem Lyceum and the Essex Institute and publishing several papers in the Historical Collections of the latter, and ultimately the annotated prison diary. The Essex Institute gave him a genealogical and historical forum, and created a far more lively public discourse of Salem’s past and the American past than seems possible now.

Locked Away EI Text

History is as much about the remembrance of things past as the past, but I don’t want the former to take precedence over the latter, especially as we approach Patriots Day and should be mindful of the heroism and the sacrifices of our Revolutionary forebears. Russell was clearly heroic, but his sacrifices were overwhelming–maybe that’s what motivated his grandson a century later. He was in captivity at the Old Mill Prison for two and a-half years, when he was exchanged, but only 20 days after his liberation he was imprisoned again, this time in the horrible, hulking British prisoner ship Jersey, anchored off New York. And there he remained until the end of the war, after which he returned to Boston (actually Cambridge) to resume his civilian and family life, but “with health shattered by reason of his years of hardship as a prisoner of war…consumption gripped him and he died in the following year on March 7, 1784 at the age of thirty-five. He had given the best years of his life to his country and he died for its cause with as much indomitable heroism and self-sacrificing devotion as though musket ball or boarding pike had slain him” in the 1908 words of Ralph Paine. And the story doesn’t even end there: Russell’s son and namesake (and Kimball’s uncle) grew up to be a master mariner, and was taken captive by the British during the War of 1812 and imprisoned in……Old Mill Prison! Russell Jr. suffered a much shorter confinement than his father, but still: think about the sacrifices of two generations of a family, and the devotion of a third.

Locked Away Mill Prison1812 Drawing of Mill Prison, Plymouth.


Where’s the Fire (Engine)?

Exactly one hundred years ago in Salem, people were flocking to the Essex Institute to see a piece of Salem history that had recently been returned to their fair city: a Georgian fire-fighting engine, by all contemporary accounts the oldest in America. Here we see a complete reversal of the situation we find ourselves in now, with the Essex Institute’s successor, the Peabody Essex Museum, shipping out the city’s material history rather advocating for its return—and showcasing it. The Union hand-tub engine was imported from Great Britain by one of Salem’s first private fire-fighting companies, the Union Fire Club, established in 1748. In the following year the company placed its order for one of Richard Newsham’s recently-patented “water engines for the quenching and extinguishing of fires”, and it arrived in Salem in 1750.

Fire Engine Colonial WilliamsburgA Newsham Engine of similar vintage @Colonial Williamsburg.

The Union was in service for quite some time as far as I can tell, but by the middle of the nineteenth century both its technology and its company was obsolete: steam and public fire-fighting departments were replacing hand-tubs and clubs. On a ceremonial visit to Philadelphia in the summer of 1866, a few remaining members of the then Union and Naumkeag Fire Club gifted their hosts, the William Penn Hose Company, with the Union. This provoked a “great hue and a cry” at home in Salem, but the old engine was not returned until 1917: and right into the Essex Institute it went. (I am wondering if Salem’s experience of conflagration in 1914 inspired the City of Brotherly Love to return the Union as a sympathetic gesture, but cannot find any confirmation of this theory).

Fire 1865

Fire Union 1866 Collage

Fire PhotoRobert Newall photograph of the William Penn Hose Company in Philadelphia with their steam engines, 1865, The Library Company; Harper’s Weekly photograph of the Union, “the oldest fire-engine in the United States” in 1866; a photograph of the Union in an article announcing its return to Salem in The American City, January 1918.

You can easily discern how important the threat of fire and the organization of fire-fighting was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by browsing through the online catalog of the Phillips Library, where the papers of the Union and Naumkeag Club are held, along with its predecessor club, the Union and Essex, and myriad other fire clubs: the Active, Alert and Amity clubs, Engine #9, the Enterprise Club, the Franklin Hook & Ladder No. 1, the Friend Engine Company, the Old Fire Club, the Social Club, the Reliance Hose Company, and the Relief Fire Club, among others. I do appreciate the PEM’s digitized library catalog, although it does not quite compensate for the lack of digitized items, or their removal from Salem. However, as I have been meeting and talking to people who have much longer associations with the PEM’s predecessors and the Phillips Library than I do, I am increasingly aware that they are missing objects as much as texts, and those objects are difficult to locate, both on the web and in reality. In the company of the “world-class” museums it claims to be, the Peabody Essex does not seem to be committed to comparative open access, to either its texts or its objects. Several years ago, one could search through a “collection gateway” that seemed to yield access to a good part of the PEM collections (it can still be accessed here but appears to be functional only in accessing items from the Native American collection), now we can only see selected “highlights”. Try comparing the collections portals of say, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or even the Worcester Art Museum, with that of the Peabody Essex Museum: and see how little you will yield. I wouldn’t know where to find the Union online: the Phillips Library finding aid description states that both it and an oil painting entitled The Union Hand-Tub by W.B. Eaton are in the PEM collections, but they are both absolutely unattainable in both digital and actual forms: a regression, certainly, from 1918.

Fire brochure

Fire 1970s

firebucket_fpoThe Union and some fire buckets were featured prominently in a 1978 Essex Institute booklet: Museum Collections of the Essex Institute by Huldah Smith Payson, and fortunately for us, one of those very same buckets is one of the PEM’s online highlights of its American art collection.


Simon Bradstreet’s Body

Lately I’ve become a bit fixated on Simon Bradstreet, the last governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, primarily because of the spectacular Salem house in which he lived—and died. So much so that when I realized the anniversary of his death date (in 1697) was yesterday, I ran over to look at his grave in Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point. But when I got there, I realized that it wasn’t there: there’s a cenotaph, but no grave and no body. Where is it? No one really seems to know!

Bradstreet Negative DC

There are clues to the whereabouts of Simon Bradstreet’s body in the Phillips Library, and also, of course, in the graveyard. The most serious inquiry was initiated by Robert Rantoul, a Mayor of Salem, President of the Essex Institute, and someone who addressed many issues of his time and before, and published in an 1892 article in the Salem Press and Genealogical RecordThere is a strong tone of righteousness in this piece, which begins with the statement that Bradstreet’s tomb is now, be the title good or bad, in possession of parties alien to the Bradstreet line, and has been so held for a century, and the representatives of these claimants not unnaturally object to all interference with their long-established rights of possession. I have to admit I did not know that cemetery plots, including those that had been “occupied”, were actually sold like any other piece of property, but that is what seems to have happened: Rantoul lays out all of the historical facts which testify to Bradstreet’s burial on Charter Street, and then presents the surprising revelation that in 1798 the tomb seems to have changed hands according to a bill of sale endorsed by Colonel Benjamin Bickman which states that Major John Hathorne and Captain Samuel Ingersoll bou’t of Benjamin Pickman….a tomb in the burying point (so called)….formerly the Property of Governor Bradstreet. Jump forward a century, to Rantoul’s time and a major investigation carried out by a special committee comprised of members of the Salem City Council and Essex Institute along with “health officers, accomplished antiquarians, and local historians”, which did not seem to be able to locate the remains of Governor Bradstreet. Rantoul leaves us with the mystery, but also some intriguing details: members of the Hathorne family had protested the disturbance of their tomb, and one contemporary observer commented that an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne having taken possession, with no further scruple cleaned out the tomb, throwing the remains of the old Governor and his family into a hole not far away”. And there we are–but where is Bradstreet?

Bradstreet Tomb 2

Bradstreet Tomb3The Bradstreet Tomb today and in its original location in the 1890s (photograph by Frank Cousins @ Digital Commonwealth). Cotton Mather’s epitaph for Bradstreet seems particularly apt: “Here lies New England’s Father! Woe the day! How mingles mightiest dust with meaner clay!”


Tea & Sympathy

This weekend, I gave a talk on Salem author Mary Harrod Northend, the Martha Stewart of her day (1904-26), at the House of the Seven Gables and my favorite part (not sure about my audience’s) was her commentary on tea rooms, accompanied by her always-illuminating photographs. In a 1915 article in American Cookery, Miss Northend hails “The Coming of the Tea-House” as a sign of both women on the move and an indication of increasing interest in her beloved Colonial style: even though she admits that tea houses are of Japanese origin those “that are dotted along the automobile routes of New England never fail to give to the tourist the savor of the time when the old coaches drove along the turnpikes, the travelers stopping at ‘ye ordinary’ or inn for crisp waffles, maple syrup and fragrant, steaming coffee” (I really did not know that waffles were colonial fare).  She highlights those that possess such ambiance, and also the social roles of tea houses and rooms, particularly for women: who opened them for respectable “livelihoods” and frequented them at all stages of life: as college students, young mothers, and empty nesters (although she of course does not use that term). Miss Northend seldom indulges in social history so this is interesting in general, and particularly so is her story of the Puritan Tea-House in Beverly, whose owner, “losing her home in the Salem fire, took refuge in a small, homely little house, just a minute’s walk from the station and cornering two roads. It is at the center of a group of all-year-round houses founded by people who had tired of the bustle and confusion of the city. It was an ideal spot for a tea-house and an easy matter to remodel the little old farmhouse to present-day use”. And so this Salem refugee thrived in Puritan-style.

Mary Harrod Northend’s Tea-Houses, c. 1915-1925, courtesy of Historic New England: The Tea House at the Gables, the Fernery and Martha Ann Tea Shop on Essex Street in Salem, and the sign for the Tea Kettle and Tabby Cat in Wenham.

Mary Gables Tea House 2

Mary Gables Tea 3

Mary Gables Tea House

Mary Fernery Tea Room 1913 Essex Street

Mary Martha Ann Tea House 2

Mary Martha Ann Tea House

Mary Tabby Cat Tea Room Wenham


Salem Film Fest 2018

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

FilmFest

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

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

Mermaids Film

Old Marine Boy

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


Remember the Armory

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

Armory 2

Salem Armory LOC

Armory Arch

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

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

Armory text 1

Armory text2

Armory text 3

Armory text 4

 


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