This past Sunday was a sparkling sunny day with newly-fallen snow, and as I was in a Little Women frame of mind, I decided to drive over to Concord to see all of its historic sites, starting with the Orchard House, of course. I’ve seen everything before but I go back again and again, seeing new things every time I return, and then there is also shopping and major architectural envy-touring in this old town, which is rich in more ways than one! Everyone seemed to be out walking or cross-country skiing, so I had the sites to myself, but for some reason I spent the most time in the one that actually had the least to offer: the Concord Museum. Don’t get me wrong: the Concord Museum is a great institution (see glowing commentary below) but it is in transition right now, and has very few rooms open. It’s a museum that has always been dedicated to the interpretation of all of Concord’s history in a professional and educational manner, and as such they are in the midst of restructuring their exhibitions—new/old spaces will open up over this year and next month they will have the new Paul Revere exhibition on view: Paul Revere: Beyond Midnight.
Just some of the charms of Concord, Massachusetts: the Alcott Orchard House, the Old Manse, Hawthorne’s Wayside, the Emerson House, and the Concord Museum. (Every time I see Hawthorne’s Concord House, it reinforces how much he disliked his native city, as it is the most un-Salem house I’ve ever seen!)
Despite the obvious differences between the suburban, wealthy enclave of Concord, and the more densely-settled and diverse city of Salem, the two old settlements are similar in terms of their heritage resources: both played important roles in the American Revolution, both had very vibrant reform movements and intellectual milieus in the nineteenth century, both claim Hawthorne, both were key influences in the Colonial Revival movement of the twentieth century. Because of their perceived importance in American history, both have a landscape of heritage sites and important collections, and a federal acknowledgement of such in the form of a National Historic Site/Park. But two developments shaped Salem’s role as a “historical” city that differentiated it from that of Concord: 1) the comprehensive commodification of the Witch Trials and their tenuous connection to Halloween; and 2) the demise of the Essex Institute, which was Salem’s “Concord Museum”.
The emphasis is on HOMES and MANSIONS for Concord and Salem on Ernest Chase Dudley’s 1964 map of Historic Massachusetts, Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library. No Witches (but Witch City of course).
I’ve written about Salem’s embrace of the profit potential of the Witch Trials time and time again so I’m not going to repeat myself: it remains an absolute mystery to me why everyone involved in this industry does not realize—much less acknowledge—that they are trading in tragedy and how a horrible statue of television witch situated in our major major historical and political square mocks the victims of 1692 in perpetuity. But that’s just me, apparently. So let’s move on. At some point, the heritage-focused citizens of Concord realized that they had too many institutions, too many attractions, too many stories: there was a need for a gateway to their town’s history. Salem had always had its gateway: the Essex Institute, which had collected, interpreted, and disseminated its history—all of its history—for more than a century. Concord did not have an Essex Institute, so it needed to develop the Concord Museum, which has served, and flourished, as the gateway to the Concord of the Revolution, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and more. When the Peabody Essex Museum absorbed the Essex Institute in the early 1990s, Salem ceased to have an institution which introduced and interpreted its cumulative history—and oriented its many visitors—in a comprehensive and professional manner. Salem is a historic “Gateway City”, but it has no historic Gateway. This has been clear to me for a while, but it became crystal clear when I was in the midst of the few new galleries that Concord Museum did have open the other day, most especially its introductory exhibition entitled Concord: at the Center of Revolution. “Revolution” is used in a broader sense here, not simply as a reference to the American Revolution but also to the “social and intellectual revolution of the mid-1800s” of which Concord was a center, thus leading it to “symbolize devotion to liberty, individualism, equality and democracy.” And because the emphasis here is on interpretation and representation, only a few objects from the Museum’s collections were chosen to introduce visitors to Concord’s history: an ancient spearhead, a revolutionary powder horn, a looking glass that belonged to an enslaved man who fought in the Revolution, the copper tea kettle that Louisa May Alcott used when she nursed the Civil War wounded, and more. These objects were carefully chosen—curated—and I immediately thought who does that in Salem? Where does that happen in Salem? What 7 or 8 or 9 objects could represent all of Salem’s history, and where would we find them?
The Museum’s gateway role extends beyond its walls: it features Concord itineraries and self-guided tours and has a formal educational partnership with the Lowell and Lawrence school systems, bringing students to its galleries and new Rasmussen Education Center through the “Paul Revere’s Ride” fund. With its recent expansion, it has expanded its interpretation to include Native American history, women’s history, and African-American history. The mission, the mandate, and the message seem to be very clear: Concord’s history is more than that of Minutemen. Certainly Salem’s history is more, much more, than that of “witches”, but the many voices repeating that message are drowned out by crowd.
And yes, Concord has maintained its Tercentenary markers.