Tag Archives: Exhibitions

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


Porcelain Propaganda

I’m thinking about Russia this week for two reasons. In a year of big historical anniversaries, we have now arrived at the centenary of the Russian Revolution–which I must say is not getting much play here, or even in Russia apparently! Regardless of how it turned out in the end, this was an extremely consequential event, almost right up there with Luther’s revolutionary Reformation, which has received some serious commemoration across the globe. It is always interesting to me what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. I’m also thinking about Russia now, because of an event this week sponsored by the Pickering House featuring Ambassador Emeritus Thomas R. Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations (under President George H.W. Bush) and Russia (under President Clinton). The title of Ambassador Pickering’s Thursday night talk is Russia and the United States: Marriage, Separation, Divorce? , which sounds very timely indeed. I have to admit that I’m thinking about Russia for a third, much more materialistic reason too: I recently came upon a trove of porcelain propaganda plates from the first decade of the Soviet Union, and I’m obsessed with both the images and the idea of these “vessels”. The idea is so contradictory: porcelain and propaganda? Porcelain is for the elite, propaganda for the masses: why should these two things ever come together? Apparently there is a utilitarian reason: in the years after the Revolution and Civil War, shortages were great and opportunities for projection were few, but when the new government took over the famous Imperial Porcelain Factory it found a ready supply of blank porcelain plates. Russian artists were mobilized to adorn these “canvases” with revolutionary symbols and slogans, a dramatic departure from the Factory’s previous designs: hammers and sickles rather than gilded flowers. The designs are all so striking: some are symbolic, some folkloric, some futuristic, all vivid. Here are a few examples from the Hermitage, which is opening an exhibition next month titled The Voice of the Time. Soviet Porcelain: Art and Propaganda.

PP Red Man Hermitage

PP Red Genius “Red Man” with “All Power to the Soviets” banner, Mikhail Adamovich and Maria Kirillova, 1921; “Red Genius” with the slogan “We will Emblazon the World with the Third International”, Alisa Golenkina, 1920.

PP Star

PP Large Star with a Shief

PP Eat“The Star”, Mikhail Adamovich, 1921; “Large Star with Sheaf “, Nina Zander, Sergey Chekhonin and L.Vychegzhanin, 1921; “Who Does Not Work, Neither Will He Eat”, Maria Lebedeva, 1920.

PP Stir

PP Cup and Saucer
“Stir” Cup & Saucer, Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, 1920;  “A Hammer, Sickle, and Gear Wheel” Cup & Saucer, Victor Rilde, 1921-22.

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