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).
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!
The shuttered Phillips Library.