Tag Archives: Exhibitions

2020: the Commemorative Year

One of the major themes of this blog has been how we remember history: what we choose to remember, what we choose to celebrate (or exploit), and what we choose to forget or ignore. This year promises to be very interesting in the realm of “anniversary history”, with two big commemorations crowding the calendar: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Massachusetts and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchising American women after a long, long struggle. I don’t think anything else—certainly not the 200th anniversary of the Missouri Compromise (1820) or the 300th anniversary of the South Sea Bubble (1720)— can compete with these epic events. Yet looking ahead at the succession of initiatives and events designed to commemorate these two markers, I am struck by one notable difference: the Suffrage Centennial seems to be a truly national movement, with major events in Washington, D.C., every single state, and many localities as well, while the Mayflower anniversary seems much more restricted: to Massachusetts, and even to the descendants of the Pilgrim passengers. This might just be my American perspective: the Mayflower commemoration certainly has a broader geographic scope, incorporating Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes. My perception might also shaped by the fact the Suffrage Centennial is already very much in full swing, so we shall see.

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Plans for the Suffrage Centennial have clearly been in the works for years, and their most dramatic manifestation was three major exhibitions in Washington: Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote at the National Archives Museum (May 10, 2019- January 3, 2021), Shall Not be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote at the Library of Congress (June 4, 2019-September, 2020), and Votes for Women: a Portrait of Persistence  at the National Portrait Gallery (March, 2019-January 5, 2020). As you can see, the last exhibition ends this weekend, but there is a companion catalog with wonderful essays and images. These exhibitions are just the beginning of a wave of suffrage remembrance and interpretation, washing over the nation: the website of the Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative is a great place to go for events and resources but every state seems to have its own central site as well, linking to institutional and local initiatives. Here in Massachusetts, Suffrage100MA, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, sponsors features like the “Suffragist of the Month” at the Commonwealth Museum, but is hardly the extent of commemorative activity: the Massachusetts Historical Society had a very visual exhibit entitled “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote up over last summer, the Boston Athenaeum has an ongoing “Eye of the Expert: (Anti) Suffrage program focused on items from its collection, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard will feature Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote from March 23 to October 3, 2020, and there are local events all around me commencing next month. This very layered exploration of the coming of universal suffrage has been extremely comprehensive, examining the complexities of the struggle, divisions of class and race, and all sorts of attendant aspects (and materials!)—and there’s a lot more to learn and see.

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pixlr_20200101133156977Ace of Spades card (verso and recto) from a c. 1915 deck published by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., Boston Athenaeum.

By contrast, the coming commemoration of the Mayflower’s arrival doesn’t seem very layered or very national: there are no events in Washington that I could find. The official US website for the commemoration is Plymouth400, Inc., which reports that the April 24 Opening Ceremony will be a two-hour event of historical content, musical headliners, interpretive readings, choreographed movement, original productions, and visual narratives to create a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The Plymouth 400 Legacy Time Capsule will be introduced, and the first items will be placed inside by special guests. Honoring the past and celebrating the future, each of the commemoration themes – exploration, innovation, self-governance, religious expression, immigration, and thanksgiving – will be presented in creative ways. Invited participants include state and federal officials, representatives of the UK, The Netherlands, colony partners, and many more. Besides this extravaganza, it’s all about the ship: the Mayflower II (1957), which has been under repair in Mystic, Connecticut for several years. The newly-restored ship will sail to Boston for a maritime festival in May (docking right next to the Constitution, which should look cool), and then proceed home to Plymouth via Provincetown for more festivities in both ports. I do see references to attendant exhibitions on Pilgrim women and the Wampanoags on the Plymouth400 site, but nothing like the diffusion of inspired initiatives associated with the commemoration of suffrage.

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screenshot_20191231-154733_chromeThe Mayflower II seemed to be more of a national story in 1957; on the stop in Provincetownfrom Boston to Plymouth, there will be a “reenactment of the signing of the Mayflower Compact and VIP reception”.

The Plymouth400 website might not be comprehensive but it is all we have to go on; it is also, very decidedly, not a resource, with minimal effort toward edification. When compared to the much more impressive official British commemoration website Mayflower400 it is exposed for just what it is: a Chamber of Commerce production. After watching all of the poignant expressions of remembrance associated with the commemoration of each and every phase of World War One over the past few years, I am not surprised to see the sophistication, earnestness, and creativity of the British commemoration of the Mayflower voyage, which will include the opening of a Mayflower Trail through and outside Plymouth, multiple exhibits, public art and music projects, living history events, a muster, festivals, illuminations, a religious history conference, and even sporting events. The website links to resources and is itself a resource, with digital maps exploring the sites associated with the Mayflower itself and every single passenger and crew member. It brings all these people to Plymouth and then to America ( some via Leiden): why can’t we have something similar that shows where they went once they got here? As I am not a Mayflower descendant, I am forming the opinion that if I want to feel a real connection to those who left England in 1620 I had better make my way to Plymouth in Devon rather than Plymouth in Bristol County.

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screenshot_20200101-153517_chromeThe official British program and interactive maps on the Mayflower400 website, which also includes artwork that has been seldom seen (over here, at least), like Anthony Thompson’s 1938 painting The ‘Mayflower’ Leaving Plymouth, 1620 @Essex County Council.


The Sculptor’s Mother

I’ve been working my way through all of the artists who were born or lived in Salem since I began this blog so many years ago, but one very notable and successful artist whom I have yet to cover is the sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904), chiefly because I don’t really care for his work. They have not aged well, but the “Rogers Groups” were important expressions of American material culture in the later nineteenth century: often Rogers is referred to as the Normal Rockwell of sculptors, and plaster castings of his best-selling works, depicting sentimental scenes of a young couple about to proclaim their marriage vows before a country parson and a convivial games of checkers “up at the farm,” sold thousands of copies for $15.00 each from 1860 to 1890. Even though Rogers studied in Paris like so many aspiring American artists, he firmly rejected the neoclassical sculptural style of his teachers—-and his time—in favor of a more accessible “vernacular” approach. He wanted to be a successful, popular artist more than an artist: he told his mother so, many times, in letters we can read at the New York Historical Society. The mother of John Rogers was Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers (1805-1877), and she is really my interest and my focus; but I can only get to her through him. And my interest in her started with a dress, the beautiful, ethereal, dress seemingly spun from air and mica (but really Indian muslin and silver) which she wore to her wedding reception in 1827.

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20191031_153222Indian Muslin and silver wedding reception dress of Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers, 1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Miss Jeannie Dupee, 1979).

This dress is in the stunning new Asian Export gallery of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since its opening about six weeks ago, I have snuck into see it (and several other things) about three or four times: I’m obsessed with it (and several other things)!  The dress is beautiful, but I feel a connection to Sarah largely through her younger sister, Mary Jane Derby (Peabody), who was an artist and the author of a hand-written and -bound journal composed for her grandchildren which a lovely lady from Maine bought at a yard sale and sent to me: I know that I should turn this little book over to her family, or an archive, but I’ve held on to it simply because I cherish it. In the journal, Mary Jane writes about her wonderful childhood in the large mansion on Washington Street that she depicts in one her most alluring paintings. This is the mansion to which Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers would return after her marriage to John Rogers of Boston, and the birthplace of her son John Rogers (Jr.) in 1829.

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Pickman Derby House 70 Wash

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Sara Rogers Salem Literary and Commercial Observer June 9 1827

Mary Ellen Derby, the Pickman-Derby Mansion at 70 Washington Street, c. 1825; Detroit Institute of Arts; a Moulton-Erickson Photograph from the 1880s, Cornell University Library—the house was demolished in 1914 for the present Masonic building; The Margaret, co-owned by Mary Jane’s and Sarah Ellen’s father John Derby, was one of the first American ships to reach Japan, in 1801, Old-time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1917; The Rogers wedding announcement in the Salem Literary and Commercial Observer, June 9, 1827.

Mary Jane and Sarah Ellen Derby seem to have had a perfect Salem childhood growing up in this mansion during Salem’s most prosperous period, the granddaughters of Salem’s most prosperous merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and the daughters of John Derby, Esq, part-owner of The Margaret, one of the first American ships (and THE first Salem ship) to dock in Japan. I’m so dazzled by her childhood (and her dress) that I make the cardinal historical mistake when I look at the post-marriage life of Sarah Ellen: I judge this life by my own standards and perspectives, rather than hers. By all accounts Sarah and her husband had a happy marriage (they had eight children, after all, of whom John Jr. was the second-eldest) but their lives together don’t seem to have been as comfortable as her Salem life. Despite his Harvard degree and Boston Brahmin pedigree, John Sr. was not a very good businessmanshortly after John Jr.’s birth in 1829 the young family was off to Cincinnati where Mr. Rogers attempted to establish a sawmill (and where Mary Jane met her husband, the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, while visiting her older sister) after this failed it was back to (western) Massachusetts for a silkworm enterprise, which also failed after a few years. There was a brief stint in New Hampshire, and then the (now much larger) Rogers family settled in Roxbury, with John Sr. taking up a post (a political appointment?) at the Boston Custom House which he held for the rest of his life. There was no Harvard for John Jr.: he was briefly established in a Boston apprenticeship before he ran off in pursuit of an artistic career. Perhaps this background explains his entrepreneurial attitude towards that career. All of this makes me feel sorry for Sarah: all those moves,, all those children! Did she have any help? Did she look back at her wedding reception dress and think: how did I get here?  But I’m just projecting my own feelings on to her: she had a large and by all accounts happy family and a successful son who addressed all of his letters to that family to her, at its center, or heart (and it looks like despite all of those children, she still might have been able to fit into that dress).

Rogers Sarah

Sarah Rogers NYHS

Sarah Rogers Checkers

Checkers photograph Essex Institute

Rogers Marketing

Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers and her family, New York Historical Society Rogers Collection and the archived online exhibit John Rogers: American Stories where you can see more photographs, get more context, and read letters from John to Sarah; Checkers at the Farm—the second most popular work of Rogers—Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Rogers and Son; photograph of “Checkers”, Smithsonian via Essex Institute Lantern slide: E24240; Advertisement for “Checkers”, Harper’s Weekly 3 (March 18, 1876): 235.


Fabricating Revere’s Ride

Because of his entrepreneurial engravings, his silverwork, portraits of him and by him, his storied ride, and his boundless brand, Paul Revere as always been the most material of our Founding Fathers: he didn’t just act, he produced, and after his legendary life was over he continued to be a focus and force of production. As we head into (a rather early) Patriots Day weekend, I am thinking about Revere, mostly in reference to Grant Wood’s 1931 painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, which supposedly aims to highlight the mythology overwhelming the event from the publication of Longfellow’s 1863 poem. The painting is so very accessible, however, that I fear that it simply reinforces Revere’s singular ride, or it has just become an aesthetic object: Wood himself transformed the image into a textile design (in which the rider gets lost in the landscape) for the Association of American Artists, and now you can even buy laminated placemats of it on Etsy! Revere the Midnight Rider was featured in a design by Anton Refregier in another “Pioneer Pathways” design, issued in several colorways by Riverdale Fabrics in 1952. A few decades earlier, Walter Mitschke also included Paul Revere’s ride in drawings for his “Early America” series of textile designs produced by R. Mallinson and Company.

Revere Wood

Reveres Ride of Paul Revere Textile

Revere the Rider Pioneer Pathways

Revere Red

Reveres Ride Mallinson

Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Textile designs by Grant Wood and Anton Refregier for the Association of American Artists, produced by Riverdale Fabrics as part of the “Pioneer Pathways” series, 1952, Cooper Hewitt Museum; Walter Mitschke’s drawings for the Mallinson Company, 1927, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

Obviously Paul Revere’s Ride is larger than the man himself in terms of its myriad representations in text, image, and fabric, but I think the most effective displays are those that were created close to home: Robert Reid’s 1904 mural in the State House, the iconic statue of Cyrus Dallin, the Paul Revere pottery produced by the Saturday Evening Girls Club, all those calendars issued by another institution with a founding- father-affiliation, the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. For a more updated presentation of the route rather than the ride, there is an exhibition of drawings by artist and illustrator Fred Lynch on view now at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in Lexington (which used to be called the National Heritage Museum) titled “Paul Revere’s Ride Revisited”.

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Reveres Ride Tile MFA

Revere Calendars

Robert Reid mural in the Massachusetts State House, 1904, Caproni Brothers plaster bas-relief sculpture, Skinner Auctions, Tile by Paul Revere Pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls Club, 1917 (decorated by Sara Galner), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 1889 & 1903 calendars by the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, Historic New England.


Mirror of History

Louis XIV famously once said Fashion is the mirror of history but as we all know, sometimes mirrors show us things we don’t want to see. I was looking around for some inspiration for my Resistance Ball dress, when I discovered the work of an amazing Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist named Fabiola JeanLouis, a photographer, a stylist, a (paper)dressmaker, and a “maker” who seems to be able to embrace the past, present and future in her work, sometimes simultaneously. Her breakthrough exhibition, Rewriting History (2016), took my breath away. Look at this “mirror image”, in which the embroidery design on the back of the embellished dress of “Madame Beauvoir” mirrors the scars from the scourged back of the once-enslaved man named Gordon, displayed in a famous photograph by McPherson & Oliver that went viral during the Civil War.

Fabiola Jean Louis MADAME BEAUVOIR'S PAINTINGMadame Beavoir’s Painting

The juxtaposition of the very beautiful (women, dresses, surroundings) with very ugly historical events is jarring in these compositions, but also remarkably effective: you can’t look away. According to Ms. Jean-Louis, it’s not just the medium and the message but also the material: the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.

Fabiola Jean Louis Madam LeRoy

Fabiola Jean Louis Rest in Peace

Fabiola Jean Louis Revolutionary-Dress-Top Madame Leroy and Rest in Peace; Revolutionary Dress Top (detail).

The beautiful Madame Leroy in her exquisite eighteenth-century gown with a stomacher (locket? window?) encasing a lynched man, an image which is repeated even more starkly in the model-less Revolutionary Dress. Less straightforward, at least for me, is Marie Antoinette is Dead, modeled on François Boucher’s portrait of a reclining Madame de Pompadour, but the updated subject seems to be a Voodoo Queen in a rococo dress. There are no fashion victims among Jean-Louis’s subjects: only powerful women, and heroines such as Mathilda Taylor Beasley: born into slavery in Georgia in 1832, she somehow escaped, and operated a secret school for African-American children in Savannah in the 1850s—a very dangerous act at that time and place. I cannot help but think of Charlotte Forten Grimké, a contemporary of Beasley’s and Salem’s first African-American educator, who ascended to that profession under far more advantageous circumstances in the North. Beasley is memorialized in Passing and Violin of the Dead, and now I know her name. I really can’t discern whether I am reacting to these works as a cultural consumer or an educator.

Fabiola Jean Louis Marie Antoinette is Dead

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Fabiola Jean Louis CollageMarie Antoinette is Dead; Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Neue Pinakothek, Munich); Passing and Violin of the Dead.  All photographs by Fabiola Jean-Louis with more + commentary at her website: www.fabiolajeanlouis.com .


Baseball Bearings

It’s high summer and high time for some baseball: of the ephemeral kind. The Library of Congress’s major summer exhibition, Baseball Americana, presents all sorts of compelling and colorful images of America’s pastime, but I want to add a few. The first two sections of the exhibition look particularly interesting to me–on the early game and the players–because I’ve always been curious how the “New York Game” beat out the “Massachusetts Game” (sometimes called Town Ball or the New England Game), which was basically a North American version of the rounders, a ball game that dates back to Tudor times. I think it would have been kind of cool if Massachusetts prevailed, if only because you could out someone by hitting them with a ball as they ran between the bases, but the New York game became “National” by the close of the Civil War.

Baseball collageThe Base Ball Player’s Pocket Companion. Boston: Mayhew and Baker, 1859.

And once everyone was playing by the same rules, baseball took off, leaving a trail of PAPER in the wake of its ascent: scorecards, scouting reports, sheet music, advertisements, drawings and photographs and lots and lots of baseball cards. All and more is in the exhibition, but I’m going to insert a few of my own favorite items here, from my parochial perspective of course. For example, Baseball Americana features an uncut sheet of the first baseball cards depicting players from the Washington Base Ball Club in various stilted poses in 1887, when tobacco companies first started tucking these slips of paper into their product. There is nothing more charming than early baseball cards, and such uncut sheets are very rare, but Historic New England has a similar image that is even older: of just one famous Boston Red Stocking Player, George Wright, posing in a slightly more naturalistic way as he illustrates the key baseball “attitudes” or stances, for an 1875 instructional pamphlet. And as you can see, these images are by Salem photographers Smith & Bousley, who operated a studio at 214 Essex Street.

Baseball Uncut sheet of Baseball Cards

Baseball George Wright

George Wright’s Book for 1875 containing record of the Boston Base Ball Club, with scores of base ball and cricket trip to England, and other items of interest, also, base ball attitudes, in twelve different styles, with an explanation of each. Hyde Park, Mass., printed at the Norfolk County Gazette Office, 1875; Historic New England.

Wright was quite the sportsman, in Boston and elsewhere, and he is also a Hall-of-Famer, so let’s stick with him—which is easy to do as he appears to be one of the first celebrity pitchmen in early baseball: featured in an 1871 cabinet card, and an 1874 advertisement for Red Stockings Cigars. I’ve also included a Red Stocking cigar label from 1874, just because I love it. You can also see images (and words!) of George and his equally-famous brother Harry “the original Wright Brothers”), along with other Red Stockings, in this million-dollar appraisal on Antiques Roadshow.

Baseball George Wright 1871

Baseball 1874-red-stockings-cigar-advertising-display-poster-george-wright REA Auctions

Baseball 1874-red-stockings-cigar-labelAll images from Robert Edward Auctions, a sports memorabilia collector’s dream.

The Library of Congress has a great collection of baseball sheet music so I’m surprised more of these items are not included in Baseball Americana, but then again its breadth encompasses the entire history of baseball while I seem to be stuck in the pre-World War I era. To be worthy of its title, Baseball Americana has to deal with segregation and free agency and moneyball, while I can just dwell on the grand old game if I like.

baseball songs collageBaseball Sheet Music covers, 1910-12, Library of Congress.


My Salem Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum has made an additional concession in the mitigation dialogue following their admission to the relocation of Salem’s historical archives to a “Collection Center” in Rowley: a presentation/exhibition on the “Salem (Historical?) Experience” to be permanently installed in Plummer Hall. This could be good news—-like everything else the devil will be in the details—but it in no way compensates for the removal of historical materials left in good faith to the care of the PEM’s predecessors by scores of Salem families. Still, Salem has always needed a proper Salem Museum, with texts, objects, and interpretations of key events and themes in its history presented in an installation that is both contextual and chronological. This could be an opportunity to have some semblance of that, as the PEM has wonderful curators and resources, but the institutional reluctance to actually showcase authentic Salem items—combined with the word “experience”—leaves me a bit worried that all we’re going to get is some sort of virtual presentation. Nevertheless I was inspired to put together my own Salem Museum, and here are its key components.

Salem Worlds: I would prefer a thematic presentation to a chronological one, but after teaching history for 20+ years I know that chronology is important—-people want to get the facts straight and in order. So I think I would use a “worlds” approach in which Salem expands from a tiny little settlement into one which is an important part of the entire world, and then create various other worlds which represent different aspects of Salem’s history. Worlds are a way to combine themes and chronology: we need to know about Salem’s experience as a colonial outpost of the expanding British Empire, its role in a world of Revolution, and its preeminence in a world of global exchange, but also about the worlds of ideas, work, and association which flourished within its borders. I’d like to flesh out the isolated world of seventeenth-century Salem and its environs that served as the setting for the witchcraft accusations of 1692 as much as possible, but also trace the legacy of the Trials through the evolution of the “world(s) of Witch City” from its first expressions until today. We need to peer into the worlds of Salem’s many activists—whether they were working for abolition, temperance, social reforms, or suffrage in the nineteenth century, or striking for more job security at Pequot Mills in 1933. I’d like to recreate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem world with texts and images, and also that of one (or more) of the lesser-known diarists whose memorials are locked in the Phillips Library. Different worlds could be explored in keeping with the PEM’s programming (I guess I have to make that concession).

Virtual is fine, but we need objects and texts too: I’ve been to quite a few city history museums (but unfortunately none on this list) and it seems to me that the mix is best. There’s always some sort of “orienting” video, so that might be the best way to deal with the chronology: I love the Museum of the City of New York’s Timescapes in particular. The only way we can create some semblance of seventeenth-century Salem is through cgi, and I cannot watch Pudding lane Productions’ deep dive into seventeenth-century London enough (and my students love it).

My Museum Timescapes

In this era of immersive make-believe, people crave authenticity, so we need to see real stuff too: personally, I’d love to see the 1623 Sheffield Patent, which granted rights to Cape Ann to several members of the Plymouth Colony and was contested by a representative of the Dorchester Company. This is a connecting link between Plymouth and the North Shore, and between Plymouth and Salem: as Cape Ann didn’t quite work out at that time the old planters migrated down the shore. Later in the seventeenth century, let’s widen the circle of persecution a bit by showing items that illustrate the struggles of Thomas Maule and Philip English—what an Atlantic world the latter represents! The widening world of eighteenth-century Salem could be explored through periodicals, ephemera, and any and all expressions of “trade port culture”, which the PEM loves (as long as the port in question is not Salem). Craftsmanship (or simply work), consumption, and activism are themes and worlds that can take us (or Salem) from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century and all the way up to today.

SHeffield Patent

My Museum Maule

My Museum Handkerchief PEMThe Sheffield Patent, 1623, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum; Title page of Thomas Maule’s New England Pesecutors Mauld, 1697; The Poor Slave (Dedicated to the Friends of Humanity), ca. 1834, copperplate-printed cotton, Boston Chemical Printing Company, The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum (Also in the Phillips Library). 

Art+History=Culture+Connections: The past five months—this entire semester!—has been like a Museum Studies course for me as I have been reading and exploring museums and historical societies around the world to see if I could come up with some compensation for the cultural deficit we have here in Salem, where the institution with most of the historical collections has withdrawn, leaving behind an infrastructure of largely commodified historical interpretation. There are many historical museums doing amazing things, but I’ve been particularly impressed by what I’ve seen (only online) at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. I spent a summer in Santa Cruz years ago on an NEH grant, so I have a fondness for that place anyway, but I love how this particular museum merges art, history, and community engagement into a mission that stresses relevance and region. It is an institution that is governed by the same “connections” mission that PEM references all the time, but their much stronger emphasis on place (in part through history) must make the pursuit of those connections more attainable and meaningful. As I haven’t been there, I’m not sure exactly how SCMAH presents the past, but my Salem History Museum would not recognize divisions between art and history, or material and textual culture. I’d have both, together, and a very particular emphasis on architecture. Lots of McIntire drawings, a whole gallery wall of Frank Cousins photographs, and some modern representations of Salem buildings to illustrate their (ever-) lasting impact. I would certainly have some of John Willand’s houses on a wall of my museum as I already have one on a wall of my house: each one is amazing, and I know he prefers a collective display. I would also feature some of the wonderful photographs of Salem captured by Salem instagrammers: more posts than #pem, just count the hashtags.

My Museum Little collage

My Museum collage

My Museum 30 Chestnut

Willand Gallery

Two sides of Salem artist Philip Little (1857-1942) from the PEM’s own collection: “Submarine Baseball” and A Relic of History, Old Derby Wharf, Salem, c. 1915; A Frank Cousins (18501927) portfolio; John Willand’s 30 Chestnut Street and Chestnut Street “Gallery”.


Home, Hearth & History

I’m really looking forward to an upcoming exhibition at the Concord Museum: Fresh Goods: Shopping for Goods in a New England Town, 1750-1900, offered as part of a state-wide MASS Fashion collaborative project which will include a fall exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society guest-curated by my Salem State colleague Kimberly AlexanderFashioning the New England Family. I thought I had fashion fatigue, because there have been so many clothing-based exhibitions over the past few years, but these exhibitions look a bit different to me—there’s something more active and engaging about the words shopping and furnishing. Instead of just being wowed by the artifacts, we can learn how and why they came to be created and acquired, processes that involved not just cultural considerations, but also economic and social factors. If I were a curator, I think I would like to create a similar exhibition focusing on home furnishings, because that could offer up insights into so many crafts, industries, and distributors—especially over the nineteenth century as households were affected increasingly by market forces. Recapturing and representing colonial “hearths and homes” and “daily life” were Colonial Revival preoccupations over a century ago; I think we could do with a refresh–and an expanded chronological focus.

Home Furnishings BA 1869

373 Essex Street Joseph Ropes©Boston Athenaeum and Phillips Library, Timothy Ropes Papers (MSS 365).

I imagine there are two approaches to researching the history of household furnishing: presume by utilizing prescriptive materials like trade catalogs and books on contemporary home decoration, or establish through receipts, diaries, and accounts. There are certainly lots of collections of the former, at the Smithsonian, here, and the Winterthur Library, to name just a few sources. Individual household accounts are more decentralized, of course, and for Salem we would be quite dependant on the collections of the Phillips Library: the marvelous hand-drawn sketch by Joseph Ropes of his bedroom at 373 Essex Street above was included in a blog post published by the library which is no longer available, but I was so taken with it I snipped it right up, fortunately. Imagine researching the furnishing of just this one room: that odd stove, so many chairs, the textiles on the bedspread and chair? Wherever they end up, and hopefully digitized, all those family papers in the Phillips have such a wealth of information within—capable of tracing the history of decades of the China Trade and a single year in the material life of one Salem household. But until they see the light of day, we have some other sources: the Winterthur Library’s digital collection of ephemera will not enable me to source Joseph Ropes’ room, but it can give us a few glimpses into Salem’s material past.

Home Furnishings 1801

Liverpool War NA 2

Home Furnishing Waters

Waters

Home Furnishings 4

Home Furnishings 2

Printed_bill 1862

Home Furnishings 3

Home Funishings

A crate of Liverpool Ware for Mr. Nathaniel Burnham (?), 1801; perhaps a pattern such as this (Northeast Auctions)? Andirons and a Kettle for Captain John Waters and the Captain himself (Northeast Auctions); furniture for another Mr. Waters, 1861; 14 yards of black silk for Mr. Goodhue; pillow and furniture manufacturers in the 1880s, Winterthur Library.


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.


An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum

Regarding the recent admission that the Museum plans to consign nearly all of the collections of the Phillips Library, including manuscript and printed materials central and unique to the history of Salem, to a new Collections Center in Rowley, before the December 6, 2017 meeting of the Salem Historic Commission.

To Mr. Daniel L. Monroe, The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum, and its Boards of Trustees and Overseers:

Please reconsider your decision to remove Salem’s historical archives from Salem.

I consider the Peabody Essex Museum to be an extraordinary asset to our city, fostering engagement, awareness, and edification. Furthermore, I understand that in order for it to flourish, it had to become greater than the sum of its two parts: the former Peabody Museum and Essex Institute. Yet those two institutions, the products of the fruits and labors of generations of Salem residents, created a foundation on which the PEM was built: a strong foundation that is acknowledged in the museum’s mission statement, which asserts its 1799 foundation and status as “America’s oldest continuously operating museum”. There are no explicit references to history in this statement, but it is implicit everywhere, especially in the aim to transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. A key path towards self-knowledge and knowledge in general is historical understanding, which is grounded in historical archives full of people as well as papers.

Like many in Salem, I am somewhat confused by the PEM’s shifting strategies towards the Phillips Library and the collections therein. For the purpose of clarification, I’d like to lay out my understanding in chronological format; if there are mistakes or misperceptions here I apologize.

1998: Following the merger of the Peabody Museum of Salem and Essex Institute and the consolidation of their two libraries, both named after members of the Phillips family of Salem, a newly-renovated Phillips Library emerges from a $10-million-dollar renovation, the first phase of the Peabody Essex’s $100 million expansion project. “The Real Witchcraft Papers”, on deposit from the clerk of the Superior Court Department of Essex County in order it increase access to historically valuable public records, are installed in a permanent exhibition. In an age of completely convincing copies, the mere knowledge that you’re seeing the originals is exciting, writes Christine Temin in the Boston Globe.

2004: Citing a reduction in visitation, the PEM cuts staff and hours for the Phillips Library,  incurring some serious resistance from scholars, librarians, and the general public (despite a coincidental announcement of its intent to increase its digitization efforts). Richard Trask, archivist for the town of Danvers (the former Salem Village) remarks that the Phillips looks like . . .  the ignored child. I certainly don’t want it to be the abandoned child of the institution.

2011: The Phillips Library in Salem is closed and its collections are moved eventually to a temporary location in Peabody, so that major renovations could be undertaken at its historic Salem buildings, Plummer Hall and Daland House. PEM public relations manager April Swieconek announced that the work would be concluded by 2013, and would guarantee the preservation of the Library’s 400,000 volumes and one linear mile+ of manuscripts, demonstrating just how important it was to the museum—It is a part of what we are and part of what Salem is– in an article in the Salem News by Matthew K. Roy.

2013-2017:  We waited and waited and waited and waited for the Phillips Library to return to Salem. I first heard of the “off-site Collection Stewardship Building”, intended to provide a “state-of-the-art conservation lab for the museum’s 1.8 million objects”, in a 2015 Boston Globe article by Malcolm Gay, which also referenced the ongoing renovations at the Phillips. In 2016, John D. Childs, formerly a conservator at Historic New England and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, was hired to become Chief of Collection Services, but he also acquired the title Ann C. Pingree Library Director at some point in that year, indicating a consolidation of conservation and library oversight. The language on the PEM website relative to the Phillips changed in 2017, with the ominous phrase moving from its temporary facility to a new location first appearing, and finally, after that fateful admission of December 6, The Phillips Library will be moving from its temporary facility in Peabody to a state-of-the-art facility in Rowley, Massachusetts. 

And so that brings us to the present, but I want to go back to 2011, when the PEM offered up two tributes to the Phillips, which in hindsight can only be viewed through a rather bittersweet lens: former Library Director Sidney Berger’s lovely exhibition of collection jewels: Unbound, Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM and Swiss artist and photographer Marianne Mueller’s Freeport [No. 002] exhibition, Any House is a Home. Mueller mined the Phillips archives and walked the streets of Salem to evoke a sense of place rarely seen–or felt–in most PEM exhibitions, and one of her most poignant pieces is a photograph of a young Salem woman standing before one of the pillars of the Phillips “where all the history is stored”. No longer.

PEM History

Rachel Tonthat of Salem before the Phillips Library, “where all the history is stored”, in Marianne Mueller’s 2011 Freeport exhibition at the PEM: Any House is a Home

Mueller perceived that the Phillips was the place “where all the history is stored” because it was the place where all the history was stored in Salem from the mid-nineteenth century to the near-present. Looking back on the Essex Institute’s first fifty years in 1898, President Robert Rantoul sought to explain its overflowing archives (a problem then as now) by its contemporary regard as a place of deposit where everything typical of our heroic past, everything that can embalm the personality and keep alive the memory of actors in the scenes of long ago, may well repose in consecrated security forever. Not only valuable books and rare historical papers — the natural accretions of a great library — have been gathered here, but relics and manuscripts and pictures and ancient records — a priceless legacy to the antiquary and the student of local annals, rich material ready to the hand of the historian — have poured in upon us until our receptivity is overtaxed… Shall we cry, hold! enough!  No, he concludes, that would never do. As befitting its name, the Institute was collecting the history of all of Essex County, but its Salem location, mandated by its 1848 articles of incorporation, crowded out the formation of any competing historical associations in the city: Salem’s historical society was the Phillips Library, and it still is.

Essex Institute Incorporation

1848 Act of Incorporation for the Essex Institute, Commonwealth of Massachusetts

And consequently, nearly every Salem street, square, park, and many buildings, both public and private, can be matched to a corresponding collection in the Phillips Library. I could go on forever making these connections between people, places, and the past, but will confine myself to only one. Salem’s newest public space, Remond Park, is a memorial to the extraordinary Remond family, including the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond. We only have one photograph of their mother Nancy Lenox Remond, a true matriarch and entrepreneurial activist who ran several businesses while simultaneously advocating for national abolition and the local desegregation of the Salem schools, and that photograph is part of the Remond family papers in the Phillips Library, deposited there by her heirs, who saw their family history as part of the history of Salem.

MrsJRemonLenox_jpg_jpg

Mrs. Nancy Lenox Remond, n.d., Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum

I am fortunate to be able to access this photograph, and reproduce it: colleagues at Salem State University commissioned its digitization as part of a initiative called SALEM in History funded by a three-year Teaching American History grant from the U.S. Department of Education a decade ago. If not for this initiative, we couldn’t see Mrs. Remond; we still can’t access her family’s records, like those of other families who lived, worked, and built Salem over the centuries. We are cut off from them, and from the history of our city. Such a consequence seems completely inconsistent with the goals of an institution that invites its patrons to discover the inextricable connections that link artistic and cultural traditions as well as one that has indeed invested considerable funds in the maintenance of the Phillips collections and buildings. I do not doubt the PEM’s commitment to the preservation of the historical collections that have been left to its care, but an opportunity has arisen to demonstrate a corresponding commitment to Salem. It might require careful curation, it will certainly require more time and more resources, but the effort will situate the Museum on the right side of history.

Please return Salem’s historical archives to Salem.

Very Sincerely,

Donna A. Seger, Salem


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