Tag Archives: Historical Interpretation

The Forces Align

This past weekend was happening; the streets of Salem were full of tourists and the historical events in which I was somewhat involved came off very well: the Salem Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall and the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clever costumes and a joyful spirit imbued the former, while a packed house turned out for the latter—for fish, and a deep dive into this often-overlooked Atlantic trade which brought a lot of wealth to Salem and the North Shore. The Resistance Ball is kind of important to me for several reasons, so I’m very grateful to everyone who made it a success. It benefited Hamilton Hall, a beautiful historic hall with a slight endowment that has to work for a living: the more support the Hall gets from its fundraising activities the more it can support the community (as for example, by providing its ballroom to Salem High School for the Junior Prom free of charge on Friday night) and the fewer weddings it has to host. I live right next to the Hall and I was president of its Board of Trustees for six years. But more than all of that, this particular event represents a relatively unique attempt to showcase the comprehensive and the progressive forces in Salem’s history, rather than one singular dark event that serves (and provides) the basis for constant exploitation. This is a city in which the commercial symbol of that exploitation is situated in its chief city square, so an event that celebrates resistance to: British rule in particular, imperialism in general, segregation, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, inequality, let alone Star Wars, is very welcome. Hester Prynne was in attendance as well as a lightsaber-wielding Rey. There is always some power force which provokes resistance, so how universal is this theme?

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Forces 14Tried to get more juxtapositions of historical and modern dress but what can I say? I was enjoying the party! Above is my beautiful friend and a very talented seamstress, Louise Brown, in her own creation of course. Below is our committee (with a few conspicuous absences) with chair Michael Selbst in the middle, to the right of me! And then we have some swag…..thanks to all our sponsors too!

Resistance Ball Committee

Forces Swag

Saturday night to Sunday afternoon: from festivities to fish! Salem is so fortunate to have a National Park in its midst: the Salem Maritime National Historic Site is always the perfect host, the perfect partner, the sole steward of our maritime history with the retreat of the PEM. The symposium went off beautifully and I was particularly interested to see some maps I had never seen before in the presentation by Karen Alexander of the University of New Hampshire (including a 1774 map from the British Museum which shows a very-populated and strategic Salem). It’s always interesting to hear about how port cities actually work, and I thought that Xabier Lamikiz of the University of the Basque Country explained the inner (and outer) workings of Bilbao really well. It was kind of odd to be staring at a screen with sources from the Phillips Library while the Salem storage facility for the same was being dismantled just next door, but I doubt very many people in the crowd were aware of that dissonance.

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Forces AlignScenes from the Salt Cod for Silver Symposium, and the demolition of the Stacks next door.


Cole, Catskill and Creative Storytelling

On Saturday morning I drove straight across Massachusetts into New York State to Catskill, home to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. The artist lived and worked at Cedar Grove, a bright, airy and porch-encircled Federal house overlooking the Hudson River and Catskill mountains, from 1833 until his premature death in 1848. Given the glorious weather we’ve been having this October, it was my intent to explore Cole country via the Hudson River School Art Trail, but I was waylaid by Cedar Grove and the village of Catskill: by the time I was done with both it was twilight. Oh well, next time, but at the very least I should have taken the Skywalk across the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the majestic Olana, the home of Cole’s protege Frederic Edwin Church. These two men were linked in life and now their houses are linked thereafter. Cedar Grove was purchased by the Greene County Historical Society in 1988 and declared a National Historic Site in the next year: after an extensive renovation it was opened to the public on the 200th birthday of Thomas Cole in 2001.

Cole Cedar Grove

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As you can see, Cedar Grove is not a large house so how or why did I spend so much time there? It’s all about the interpretation: and the fact that it is such an inviting place to be: the public is invited to come in, wander around, take pictures (with no flash, of course), and even sit down, on blue-cushioned chairs that looks exactly like the period chairs on which Cole himself sat. His cape is draped casually on a bench; reproductions of his letters are scattered on every surface. By the time that this house museum was created, Cole’s works and papers had been long dispersed and ensconced in museum and archive collections: consequently the curators had to be creative in their interpretation. They have used the familiar–or rather the intimate, the aesthetic (striking paint colors throughout and modern art works in rotating exhibitions, plus reproductions of Cole’s works), and technology, in the form of Second Story’s immersive interpretations which plunge the visitor into Cole’s worldview and creative process. It’s very effective.

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And then there was the Old Studio, where Cole worked, and the New Studio, and one of the loveliest outhouses (a three-seater) I have ever seen: a lot to appreciate. Some grounds: not as many as once were as a large parcel was taken for construction of the Rip Van Winkle bridge in 1935.

Cole Outhouse

I misjudged the time because our weather has been so warm: it feels like summer but the days are much shorter. Actually, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked at Cedar Grove because I dawdled in Catskill, which was a happy surprise. It is one of those perfect New York State river towns, with a lovely main street lined with nineteenth-century buildings with more flourish and color than you’ll ever find in New England. Within were antiques, art, and food, and every narrow lot fronting the street that does not have a building on it has been turned into a perfectly-maintained little park. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a cleaner town. There was an old movie theater, of course, and a courthouse, and beyond the main street was the river on one side and neighborhoods of old houses on the other in many different architectural styles: stately Greek Revivals, eclectic Victorians, lots of those New York Italianates with compressed windows on the third floor. Certainly not Cole’s Catskill, likely much better, and I never say that when comparing the present to the past.

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The Salem “Heritage” Trail needs more…..Heritage

It is pretty well-known here in Salem that the Red Line that runs though downtown, the official “Heritage Trail”, is more representative of commerce than history. It encompasses heritage sites like the House of the Seven Gables, the Corwin (“Witch”) House and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but also more dubious enterprises like the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, with no discernment. There are no standards along the Heritage Trail: the Peabody Essex Museum with its vast collections, blockbuster exhibitions, and professional staff and the Witch History Museum, a storefront shop which lacks collections, curators, and content, have equal status in terms of their roles as provisioners of “heritage”.  According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), a museum is a nonprofit institution, which maintains, interprets, and exhibits its collections for the public good. As Salem’s witch museums are for-profit enterprises, which maintain no collections and offer their performances and “exhibits’ exclusively for their private gain, I don’t think they qualify as museums under the professional definition: I prefer to refer to them as “experiences”.

Museum Collage A Tale of Two Museums; Alvin Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill, 1818, Peabody Essex Museum, and the Gallows Hill exhibit at the Witch History Museum (Of course now we know that the victims of 1692 were hanged at Procter’s Ledge rather than Gallows Hill).

Of course, people are free to choose whatever experiences they would like, but if tourists stick to the Red Line they are going to be missing out on much of Salem’s heritage. And they do stick to the Red Line, believe me: I followed several groups of tourists the other day (on the hottest day of the year) as they walked along it with great dedication, all the way from the Salem Witch Museum to the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, bypassing several sites which are related to the real history of the Witch Trials: St. Peter’s Church, under which the body of Philip English lays, the Howard Street Cemetery, adjacent to where Giles Corey was pressed to death, the former sites of Bridget Bishop’s house and orchard, the Salem Jail and Court House where the accused witches were held and tried. The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum removed the plaque which marked the spot of the original jail and affixed it to their building, so now they “own” that history. The imprimatur of the Red Line makes it official.

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Plaque on the Witch Dungeon Museum along the Red Line; the second, smaller plaque was added a decade later than the first.

The problem with the existing Red Line/Heritage Trail is not just its presentation of an incomplete and often-shoddy history of Salem. Because it is so obviously inadequate, it has led to a form of cultural “segregation”: other organizations, chiefly the National Park Service in collaboration with local groups, developed alternative walking trails to fill the gaps: architecture tours, a maritime tour, a tour featuring sites related to Salem’s African-American history, and a Hawthorne tour (you can download all the brochures here). There are also a wide range of commercial tours, which seem to have multiplied dramatically over the past few years. Visitors to Salem can have quite a different experiences depending on their degrees of preparation, resourcefulness, and curiosity. I also think that Salem’s reputation has suffered by comparison with the other Red Line (what I have often heard called the real Red Line), Boston’s Freedom Trail, which does not include commercial sites.

Salem has been a tourist destination for a long time, over a century, and we could learn from our past projections. The map included in my favorite old guidebook, What to see in Salem (1915) projects a route that is not dissimilar from today’s Heritage Trail in terms of geography, but exhibiting very different priorities: public places rather than private enterprises, an integrated city of real museums, sites associated with Hawthorne and the Revolutionary War as well as the Witch Trials, colonial and Federal houses and gardens. The problem with the 1915 route is immediately apparent, however, especially if you compare it with the current Heritage Trail map: no one stood to make any money.

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What to see in Salem text 1915

Red Line Map 2016

Map and Key from What to see in Salem (1915) and current Heritage Trail Map, available here–all the numbers refer to local businesses and the museums, real and faux, are in text. Judging by font size, the Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre looks like the place to go! (But it’s never open, except in October).


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