Tag Archives: Anniversary History

Receptive Reenactments

I do not think that most professional historians care for reenactments of past events, primarily because of their belief that people in the present can never truly “reenact” the past and so any attempt to do so will lead inevitably to trivialization. There is also a general disdain for battle reenactments, which seem to dominate such endeavors. I share those views, but I also see a lot of positive aspects of communities coming together to explore various aspects of their past. I think activity is important, especially for the generation I’m teaching now, whose engagement in the past seems confined to video games. I was fortunate to grow up around reenactments of the more “festival” type, so I don’t associate period dress-up with formations necessarily, and here in Salem I’m an enthusiastic supporter of any attention to any event that does not revolve around profiteering from the tragic events of 1692. Looking at reenactment trends, it appears that we’re moving away from big battles and towards progressive social movements: suffragists, labor actions, protests. There are attempts to capture the spirit of the past in more engaging “pop-ups”, rather than by slavish devotion to every little stitch: just contrast this New York Times article about the diminished ranks at Gettysburg with this blog post on events celebrating Chicago’s more colorful past. Even though I am having real difficulties with the writing of PBS’s Victoria this year, I did like Lucy Worsley’s recreation and reenactment of Victoria and Albert’s 1840 wedding, which was all about the details: dress, venue, menu, CAKE. BUT Worsley was able to take all those details and weave them into something that had lasting significance: the reinvention of the British monarchy in the nineteenth century through big majestic events. Obviously we are still affected by royal weddings today.

Reenactment Cake

Leslie’s Retreat (which happened on this date in 1775), is a perfect event for reenactment as it involves both a military maneuver and social protest against that maneuver, is a local event that can be tied into a much larger context, and must be played out with both words and actions. Despite the weather, the third annual enactment went off very well on Sunday: instead of taking it outside and down to the riverside, everything happened in the confines of the First Church. Even though his role is mythical, Major Pedrick warned the congregation of the imminent arrival of the British, they marched, the compromise was reached, and the reception began.

Reenactment 2

Reenactment 10

Reenactment 1I am not showing you Major Pedrick because he should not have been there!

Reenactments can trap you in their details if you are not careful. Even though it was largely irrelevant to the day’s discourse, I became fixated on the logistics of the British soldiers’ landing and march. So off to Marblehead I went, to see the two referenced landing locations, very near to one another, and then their possible routes to Salem. There I also saw the Marblehead plaque marking the occasion, which (like the account of Samuel Roads in my last post) seemed to imply that the story was all about Marblehead!  Well there you have it: there are at least two sides to every story, so you might has well just aim for the spirit of the occasion.

Reenactment 3

Reenactment 8

Reenactment 9

Receptive Reenactment

Reenactment 5

Reenactment 6

March Map 1776 2 Des Barres

Thanks to Tom P. for leading me to what I think are Homan’s Cove and Lovis’s Cove, the landing places referenced in the sources. From there I presume that the British marched through the town of Marblehead (on what streets I do not know) and then to Salem along the above road on the 1776 Des Barres map (Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library).


Reports of Leslie’s Retreat

This weekend brings the third annual commemorative reenactment of “Leslie’s Retreat” to Salem, an enthusiastic event that I think everyone enjoys because of its non-commercial, non-1692 focus: at least I do! The reenactment marks an event which might have sparked the American Revolution weeks before Lexington and Concord, if shots had been fired; it was nonetheless a notable occurrence of an armed (and potentially very dangerous) resistance. In late February of 1775 General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, got wind of a store of cannon in Salem and dispatched Lieut. Col. Alexander Leslie and 240 soldiers of the 64th Regiment by ship from Boston to Marblehead on the 26th (a Sunday!), with instructions to march to Salem and seize them. There’s a lot of whispering and distrust in this story as the “Tory” and “Patriot” sides do not seem firm, but several Marblehead patriots rode ahead in Revere-like fashion and warned the people of Salem, and thus “the Sabbath was disturbed”. By the time the soldiers arrived in Salem a crowd had assembled in the vicinity of the (old) North Bridge, as across the North River was the blacksmith’s shop where the cannons were being affixed to field carriages. A prolonged standoff ensued with the drawbridge raised, during which the cannons were moved west, several ending up in Concord, I believe. The bridge was lowered so that Colonel Leslie could fulfill his orders, but it was too late, and so he and his troops turned around and marched back to Marblehead, their ship, and Boston. I’ve written about this event several times (here and here), there’s a nice narrative of events here, and the most insightful accounts are on J.L. Bell’s brilliant blog Boston 1775 (I especially like this post but check this one out too, and this one), so there is no need to go into any more detail, but there are three issues I’d like to raise, two “open” and one relatively new (I think, maybe not, not my period!), all from newspaper accounts written in the weeks after Colonel Leslie’s retreat from Salem.

Leslies Retreat Collage

Leslies Retreat Newport Mercury

Leslies Retreat March 15 Masthead

There is some back-and-forth, especially in the first few weeks after the Retreat, but for the most part the papers are essentially publishing the standard story first published by the Essex Gazette. There are so many details to this story, however, that it’s notable what is put in and what is left out. So here are my “outstanding” issues, in the form of a question and two comments.

How many damn cannon(s) were there in Salem?  I can’t lock down the number (and I know “cannon” is plural but I think I have to use cannons here). Apparently General Gage had received reports that old ships’ cannons were being converted in Salem and eight additional cannons had been imported from abroad, while the Essex Register’s report on the Retreat included the assertion that twenty-seven pieces of cannon were removed out of this town, in order to be out of the way of the robbers. I’ve read (and quoted) seventeen cannons, nineteen cannons, and twenty cannons. I think we’ve go to go with the eyewitness account cited by J.L. Bell, in which Samuel Gray, who was nine years old at the time, went into the smithy on the day after and asked how many cannons had been there the day before and was told twelve; understood they were French pieces, and came from Nova Scotia after the late French war; were guns taken from the French; does not know to whom they belonged previous to being fitted up on this occasion. TWELVE. Gray’s remembrances were in response to interviews that Charles Moses Endicott conducted to produce his Leslie’s Retreat; or the Resistance to British Arms, at the North Bridge in Salem, on Sunday, the 26th of February of 1775, which was first published as a separate Proceeding of the Essex Institute in 1856.

 (The remembrance and reconstruction of what became known as “Leslie’s Retreat” enable us to see how Salem’s history was collected, preserved and interpreted by the Essex Institute, one of the founding institutions of today’s Peabody Essex Museum. Contrary to the claims of the PEM leadership: yes, the Essex Institute DID function as a historical society, and that’s why its historical collections, including its publications and historical manuscripts and texts assembled in the Phillips Library, constitute an important archive of Salem’s history, and no, no institution is fulfilling that role for Salem now, so the decisions to end the Institute’s interpretation and collection missions and remove its archival collections from Salem will have far-reaching consequences. These decisions were made by Mr. Dan Monroe, and since he has announced his retirement it is time to consider his legacy—and this is a truly momentous one.) Sorry–the spirit of RESISTANCE overwhelmed me!

Back to the question of the cannon(s): for some reason Endicott goes with 17 in his account, which has become classic, but he includes Gray’s number in his footnotes, clearly giving some credence to his claim. I don’t know why we can’t believe the boy: certainly his would have been a crystalline memory.

Major Pedrick was a Tory! None of the contemporary reports of the events of February 26, 1775 mention Major John Pedrick as the “alarming” figure who rode ahead of Leslie’s troops to warn the citizens of Salem of their imminent arrival, nor does Endicott. That’s because his role was made up after Endicott’s account. Pedrick was in fact a wealthy Tory who would not have been motivated to play such a conspicuous role at this time; he came around a bit later but anonymous Marbleheaders warned Salem on that Sabbath day. Again, I am relying on J.L. Bell’s succinct analysis of the “myth” of Major Pedrick, which has been perpetuated in the most recent scholarship as well as our reenactment. I was also inspired by Bell’s post to look around and see what else was made up about our event, particularly in the “creative” Marblehead accounts of the later nineteenth century. Samuel Roads Jr.’s History and Traditions of Marblehead (1880) turns Leslie’s Retreat into an all-Marblehead affair: Pedrick is prominent, of course, along with an entire Marblehead Regiment that came to Salem to take up with Leslie’s troops. Not a single Salem name is mentioned in Roads’ account, but we do hear of one Robert Wormsted, one of the young men from Marblehead,—who afterwards distinguished himself by his daring and bravery,—[and ] engaged in  an encounter with some of the soldiers. He was a skillful fencer, and, with his cane for a weapon, succeeded in disarming six of the regulars. Wow. No mention in Endicott of this cane-wielding Wormsted—or Pedrick—but Marblehead folk artist J.O.J Frost seems to have cemented the latter’s place in history in his early twentieth-century painting Major Pedrick. To the Town of Salem, to Give the Alarm.

Leslies Retreat Frost Courtesy Skinner Auctions; note the anachronistic photo inserted on the right.

“Anniversary History” was alive and well in 1775: Even in the standard reports of Leslie’s Retreat published in the week after, I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of what had just happened in Salem and the imminent fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Side by side we can read of Leslie’s “ridiculous” expedition and “an Oration, in commemoration of the Massacre, perpetuated in King-Street, on the 5th of March, 1770, by Joseph Warren, Esq.” and several reports made the connection between the two, which occurred on successive sabbaths. Dr. Warren actually spoke on March 6, 1775, and I wish he had referenced Salem, but he did not. Nevertheless, you can really feel the drumbeat of rebellion when you read the New England papers published in March of 1775: there are lessons to be learned and anecdotes to be memorialized. The editors of the Newport Mercury were also thinking historically when they opined that as our brave ancestors used to carry their implements of war with them to their places of worship during the Indian wars, perhaps our brethren of the Massachusetts Bay have good reason to make use of the same precaution at this day. I also can’t resist adding another eyewitness testimony here, from a “True Son of Old Ireland” who was on the spot, as well as my very favorite photograph of the First Reenactment of Leslie’s Retreat, two years ago: these guys played their roles really well.

Leslies Retreat Lessons Learned Newport Mercury March 6

Essex Gazette March 7 1775 Leslies Retreat

Leslies Retreat best photoThe Newport Mercury of March 6, 1775 and the Essex Gazette of March 7, 1775; Lt. Colonel Leslie (Charlie Newhall!!!) exasperated and outflanked two years ago.

Commemorating Leslie’s Retreat on February 24:  Reenactment at 11:15-11:30 for Redcoats (meet at Hamilton Hall) and Patriots (meet at the First Church). Reception afterwards at First Church.

A Staged Reading of Endicott’s Leslie’s Retreat at the Pickering House by Keith Trickett, 3pm: https://pickeringhouse.org/events/special-leslies-retreat-performance/.

Toast the Retreat and Salem’s Resistance at O’Neill’s Pub on Washington Street from 4-7pm.

And coming in April: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall: https://www.hamiltonhall.org/full-event-calendar/2019/2/1/resistance-ball


A River of Molasses

Today marks a big disaster anniversary in our region: the centennial anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of January 15, 1919, which killed 21 people, injured 150, and laid waste to several blocks of the North End of Boston. I don’t really have much to add to the narrative of events of that day, but I feel like weighing in anyway, primarily because this tragedy is the perfect example of unmoored history, lacking context and consequently inhibiting understanding for many. There’s a great book about this event (Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: the Great Molasses Flood of 1919) but whenever you bring it up in general company, people generally smile or laugh because molasses is trivial in our society; it’s akin to people being drowned—-or smothered?—in jello. But molasses was a major industrial product in 1919, recognized simultaneously as both beneficial and potentially dangerous but above all, vital. And when you look at what happened on January 15, 1919 with a historical perspective, it’s possible to see both major precedents and consequences.

molasses panorama bpl

molasses bpl 4901511479_88c285b656_o

molasses bh bpl4902097496_f15e748c9c_o

molasses bpl

molasses page 2Headlines and pictures from the day after in the Boston Daily Globe and the Boston Herald: “Red Cross Ambulance and Nurses making their way through the River of Molasses”, Boston Public Library.

Molasses was not only much more integrated into our cuisine a hundred years ago, but its importance in alcohol production had intensified with the increasing demand for industrial alcohol, which entered a golden age of production following the passage of the 1906 Denatured Alcohol Act, permitting the production and sale of tax-free alcohol for industrial purposes. The author of The Practical Handbook on the Distillation of Alcohol from Farm Products, including the processes of malting : mashing and macerating : fermenting and distilling alcohol from grain, beets, potatoes, molasses, etc., with chapters of alcoholometry and the denaturing of alcohol…., issued the year before the Great Molasses Flood, cannot contain it his enthusiasm for this development, which “opened the door of a new market for the farmer and the manufacturer”, as Alcohol leaped at once into fame—not merely as the humble servant of the pocket lamp, nor as the Demon Rum, but as a substitute for all the cheap hydrocarbon fuels,  and as a new farm product, a new means for turning the farmer’s grain, fruit, potatoes, etc…into that greatest of all Powers, Money. Molasses had long been lauded as feed for cattle, horses, and poultry, but now its uses seemed limitless, in everything from road construction to the manufacture of varnishes, paints, and munitions. The 1907 act provoked a wave of hastily-built distilleries, such as the Boston tank owned and “maintained” by the Purity Distilling Company, which began leaking almost immediately after its construction in 1915 and finally burst open four years later. But the North End flood was not the first molasses disaster: it wasn’t difficult to find stories of exploding tanks and bursting hogsheads in the first few decades of the twentieth century—and just in the Boston papers. There are far more stories about the “adulteration” of molasses, however (generally with tin): and thus it is easy to understand how regulation, of industrial construction, production, and labor, would emerge as a major consequence of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.

picmonkey image

molasses june 12 1886 boston heraldMolasses accidents in March of 1908 and December, 1911 reported in the Boston Journal; report of adulterated molasses (one of many!), Boston Herald, June, 1886. 

 

The Great Molasses Flood & Fluid Dynamics: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/science/boston-molasses-flood-science.html.

The Great Molasses Flood &  “Misunderstood History”: https://www.masshist.org/calendar/event?event=2762


Salem during the Great War

I have been so impressed with the World War One centenary commemoration initiatives both in Europe (where they have been going on since 2014) and the United States (more recent initiatives, organized by towns, states, and the national Centennial Commission): poppies and lights galore, a real focus on humanity, and that amazing “We’re Here because We’re Here” living history event, which makes me cry every time I see more than one minute of video—nope, make that 30 seconds. Of course the commemoration has been more intense in Europe because the loss was more intense, but there have been some impressive American initiatives too: in our region, the Lexington Historical Society, in particular, has gone all out. Here in Salem, we have our veteran squares, which is a lovely program, but that’s about it: we have no organization committed to collecting and interpreting local history in its entirety and in context, and I doubt there’s much money to be made from commemorating the Great War. And that’s really too bad, because the history of Salem’s homefront experience during World War I is absolutely fascinating, and worthy of note. It took me about an hour to search for these items: just imagine if someone with more intent–and more time–did so.

By far the most news generated in local papers (besides reports of troop movements) in 1917 and well into 1918 is that concerned with fundraising, including relief initiatives and the Liberty Loan program by which the federal government financed the war. These were community efforts, involving drives, parades, and all sorts of events—and press. The national posters for the Liberty Loan are amazing (so many different themes and approaches, from full-on jingoism to fear to sentimentality) and the local response equally so. The Boy Scouts were deployed in this effort, and the boys of the Salem Fraternity clearly answered the call. The “Community Chest” initiative started just before the war, and during the war 300 American cities raised charitable funds according to set goals: Salem’s goal was $34,000 a month, which I’m not sure it met, but this big “War Chest” appeared on Washington Street so the effort must have been somewhat successful! There were several relief efforts in Salem: the one which seems to have been the most active was the American Fund for Jewish War Sufferers in the various war zones of Europe and Palestine, which raised 20,000,000 over the course of the war. Mrs. Nathan Shribman, the chair of the “Relief Bazaars” through which Salem would raise its share of those funds, is below in June 2017. One really does get the impression of frenzied fundraising during the entire war, even as the flu raged in the fall of 2018.

Liberty

World War Boy Scouts

WOrld War I Liberty Loan

World War I Salem 1918 Liberty Loan

Salem WWI Fraternity Liberty Loan

Salem World War I Treasure ChestLiberty Loan posters, 1917-1918, Library of Congress; Lining up to buy Liberty Bonds, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Salem Boy Scouts on Central Street during a Liberty Loan rally, October 1917, US National Archives; the War Chest on Washington Street, SSU Archives and Special Collections.

As we get into later 1917 and 1918, news from the front dominates the headlines of the Boston and Salem papers, but what happens over there always affects the home front. One of my favorite stories involves a film made by all the Salem families of soldiers in France and sent over there through the YMCA. A wonderful community effort—wish I could find it. Then there is the incredibly story of Salem’s own Ralph C. Browne, a self-taught “hitherto unknown Yankee inventor”, whose antenna firing device made possible the North Sea Mine Barrage in the closing phase of the war: local man wins the war!

WW I

WWI 2

WWI 5

World War I 8 Browne November 3 2018Boston Globe clips, 1918.

So many soldiers. Salem has its very own Saving Private Ryan scenario with the Gibney family, who sent four sons to France and were commended for their sacrifice by President Wilson in the Spring of 2018: this was a national story. Both the Salem and the Boston papers covered the war in a very personal way, sharing as many individual stories as possible, so these are just a few Salem soldiers who experienced terrible loss, joyful reunions, and distinguished themselves with great bravery. Meanwhile, back home, Salem’s residents were supporting their efforts in myriad ways right up until the end, and the Boy Scouts were drilling on Winter Island. Many came back, some did not, but the entire city seems to have turned out for the spectacular Armistice Day parade, a century ago.

World War I April 1918 Gibneys

PicMonkey Image

November 1918

Salem Fraternity Drill 1918

Salem World War 1 Armistice ParadeSalem 1918: just a few Salem soldiers’ experiences as reported in November, Boston Globe; the Boy Scouts drill on Winter Island, US National Archives; Armistice Day Parade, SSU Archives and Special Collections.


An Antiquarian Artist

I’ve been thinking about commemoration—past, present, and future–a lot lately, yet another consequence of the constant interplay between what I do and where I live. I’m pretty sure my understanding of English and western European history between 1400 and 1700 is grounded in historical sources, but I’m increasingly aware that my “knowledge” of American history is much more a product of projection than evidence. And as Massachusetts heads into a prolonged period of commemoration for the 400th anniversaries of Plymouth and its successor settlements (including Salem, which will have to “remember” without its hijacked historical sources), I’ve been reading up on the scholarly literature, and just finished We are What We Remember: The American Past through Commemoration, a volume of essays edited by Jeffrey Lee Meriwether and Laura Mattoon D’Amore. Two essays in particular, D’Amore’s “Patriarchal Boots: Women, Redcoats and the Construction of Revolutionary Memory”, and Anne Reilly’s “The Pilgrimization of Plymouth: Creating a Landscape of Memory in Plymouth, Massachusetts during the Pilgrim Tercentenary of 1920-21”, were quite resonant for me, and almost as soon as I was done with them we were off to see commemoration in practice rather than theory: at the annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre by the Bostonian Society at the Old State House. It was interesting to see the “Colonials” mingle with the large crowd assembled: when well-worn revolutionary phrases were shouted out, I heard several individuals wearing capes, cocked hats, and mob caps replying not yet…..that’s from 1774, or 1775.

We are Crop

Boston Massacre 8

Boston Massacre best

This is a really great event but there are too many glaring lights! Can’t we turn off Boston for a half-hour or so? I suppose not, but we should remember that this epic event was clothed in darkness. Even Revere’s iconic print, which is so important a foundation for our collective memory, casts it in light: it’s not until a century later that we see darker depictions. I wanted to see more after the reenactment, so I started looking around, and came up with several references to a painting by Walter Gilman Page (1862-1934), a prominent Boston artist whose commemorative painting of the Massacre was exhibited in 1899-1900. It received strong reviews, but I can’t find the actual painting anywhere–only illustrations and lantern slides. As you can see, it is dark. Where is it?

Boston Massacre Art Exchange 42

Boston Massacre Page

Page was a wonderful portrait artist (best known for his extremely humanist portrait of a dying Grandmother in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and an active member of the Nantucket Art Colony, but he seems to have been particularly passionate about historical paintings: he depicted several other revolutionary events (Paul Revere’s ride, of course) and also reproduced portraits of founding fathers. The 1899 article in the Art Interchange (the source of the illustration above) notes that Mr. Page’s keen interest in American history of the Revolutionary period is indicated by his membership in several historical societies—charter member of the Society of Colonial Wars for Massachusetts, charter member and vice-president of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the Revolution, and member of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. He is also chairman of the Tablet Committee of the Sons of the Revolution, whose business it is to mark with properly inscribed tablets the scenes of historical events connected with the War of the Revolution. He has been prominently connected with the movement for art and art decoration in the public schools, and is chairman of the Committee of Massachusetts’ Artists for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Artistry and memory: a winning combination, from time immemorial.

Antiquarian Artist Hutchinson.JPG 1900

Antiquarian Artist HancockWalter Gilman Page’s portraits of Thomas Hutchinson (1900, copy of the 1741 portrait by Edward Truman), Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and John Hancock (1906, after John Singleton Copley, Skinner Auctions).


A Memorial Map of Olde Salem

The 1920s was a decade of intensive commemoration in Massachusetts, in recognition of the 300th anniversaries of the landing at Plymouth in 1620 and the arrival of John Winthrop here in Salem in 1630, bearing the royal charter that formally recognized the Massachusetts Bay Company. The commemoration culminated with the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentennial Commission in 1929, which oversaw thousands of events, including processions, pageants, historical exercises, old home weeks, exhibitions and expositions, the publication of various commemorative materials like Massachusetts on the Sea and Pathways of the Puritans, and the erection of roadside historical markers across the Commonwealth (the Salem markers are all “missing”—I’m coming to the unfortunate conclusion that there has been a long cumulative campaign to remove as much of Salem’s tangible history as possible, with the relocation of the Phillips Library as the end game! Maybe we are cursed–or maybe I’ve lost my perspective).

Pictorial Stamp.jpg

Smithsonian/National Postal Museum

There was also some sort of map initiative: as I’ve found several pictorial/historical maps–of the commonwealth, various regions, and individual towns–published in this period, often by the Tudor Press and under the auspices (and with the approval) of the Tercentenary Conference of City and Town Committees. Elizabeth Shurtleff’s Map of Massachusetts. The Old Bay State (which is in the Phillips Library but fortunately also in David Rumsey’s vast digital collection) is one such map, and there are others representing Cape Cod, Cape Ann, Boston, and several other Massachusetts towns and cities. As you can see from the cropped images of James Fagan’s map of Shawmut/Boston 1630-1930 and Coulton Waugh’s map of Cape Ann and the North Shore, these maps were “historical” in an extremely subjective way, emphasizing achievements above all. As explicitly stated by Fagan, they pictorialize progress above all. I’m sure that this message was particularly important given the coincidental timing of the Massachusetts Tercentenary and the onset of the Great Depression.

Pictorial Map Shurtleff

Pictorial Map Boston

Pictorial MAP Cape Ann

So far, I’ve seen 1930 pictorial/historical maps of Ipswich, Concord, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cambridge, and the other day, while looking for something altogether different in the digital collections of the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, I came across of one of Salem! Very exciting–I thought I had chased down every Salem map in existence but no, there was (is) The Port of Salem, Massachusetts by Warren H. Butler, published by the Tudor Press in 1930. This is a perfect Colonial Revival map really, focused on recreating a rather whimsical/historical “olde” Salem rather than tracing the path of progress. I love it, even though my own house seems to have been swallowed up by an extended Hamilton Hall on lower Chestnut Street. It’s hard to date this map: in the accompanying text, Butler says “here are the ancient streets of Salem”, but while the streets depicted seem to be vaguely Colonial, the buildings that line these streets are of varying periods. His Salem is a port city first and foremost, but while he includes ships in both the harbor and North River and Front Street is really Front Street, the massive Gothic Revival train station is here too. Samuel McIntire’s courthouse is located in its historic location on Washington Street, just a few steps from the Greek Revival courthouse that still stands, vacant, in Salem. All of the Derby houses are on the map, including the majestic–and ephemeral—McIntire mansion which once sat in the midst of present-day Derby Square. In fact all of my favorite Salem houses, still-standing and long gone, are on Butler’s map: it’s a historio-fantasy map of non-Witch City, and I want to go there!

Pictorial Port of Salem

Pictorial Salem 2

Pictorial Salem 1

Pictorial Salem 3

Pictorial Salem 4You can zoom in on Salem’s “ancient” streets yourself at the BPL’s Leventhal Map Center.


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.


%d bloggers like this: