Tag Archives: History Museums

The Forest through the Trees

COURT HOUSES: constant scenes of dramatic Salem history, from the seventeenth century until today. At present, we have one court house being demolished, one recently refurbished in spectacular fashion, and two long sitting vacant, waiting for their redevelopment into something deemed acceptable by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). One of these warehoused courthouses, an amazing Romanesque structure which was built in several phases over the later nineteenth century, has by all accounts an equally amazing interior library with a huge walk-in fireplace: for some reason I have never been able to make it inside but everyone I know who has raves about it. The other looks like a very pure Greek Revival structure, but again, by all accounts, it has been gutted inside. Because the interior of the Romanesque former Superior Court is so beautiful, several of the proposals for its redevelopment want to preserve areas for public space, which is of course great. And while their ideas for public access have merit conceptually, I am begging the SRA to just say no. While “The Museum of Justice of New England” and “a regional children’s museum that is themed around the Parker Brothers historical presence in Salem” (I’m quoting a September 4 article in the Salem News by Dustin Luca) sound like nice ideas with place-based rationales, the last thing Salem needs is another niche “museum”; what Salem needs, of course, is a Salem Museum, and this scenario offers up likely the last opportunity to make that happen.

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img_20190914_150104_773The Superior Court House even has turrets!

Every professional historian, whether working in academic fields or more public positions, along with every well-traveled visitor whom I have squired around Salem, always asks the same question: where is the History Museum? They all notice the commercialism, and the lack of context, and the two are related. We cannot see the forest through the trees. If you have a Salem Witch “Museum” (insert quotes around all the following “museums” please–the first four exist and its only a matter of time before the last surface), and a Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, and a Salem Witch “History” Museum, and a Salem Witch Board Museum, and a Salem Witch Ball Museum, and a Salem Witch Broom Museum, and a Salem Witch Hat Museum, and a Salem Witch Cat Museum, and a Salem Witch Spoon Museum, and a Salem Witch Pin Museum, and a Salem Witch Cauldron Museum, and a Salem Witch Wart Museum, and a Salem Witch Herb Museum, and a Salem Witch Wand Museum then you’re not going to understand anything about the cumulative origins, role and impact of the Salem Witch Trials in context. Likewise, if you go to the Pirate Museum, the Halloween Museum, and the “Lost Museum”, you’re not going to understand anything about Salem’s vast and complex history at all. There are only bits and pieces out there, trees, with Salem’s two professional museums, the House and the Seven Gables and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, attempting to show Salem’s many visitors some semblance of a forest.

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Court House Costello BPLBits and Pieces of seldom-seen Salem history: Salem printer Ezekiel Russell’s July 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Holyoke family coat-of-arms by Salem artist Benjamin Blyth, a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Salem tax collector Joseph Hiller, Nathaniel Bowditch’s presidential badge from the East India Marine Society, c. 1820, the “Gerrymander” in the Salem Gazette, Salem’s bicentennial banner, Nathan Read’s steam engine, and letters from Salem and Alexander Graham Bell; a photograph of Jessie Costello leaving the Superior Court in Salem after having been found innocent of poisoning her firefighter husband in an absolutely sensational trial in 1933, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The few images above represent the tip of an iceberg: I could post thousands of pictures of Salem images, stories, “facts”, and events—in fact, I have: that’s my blog! In each post I try to provide context but there is no context for the whole Salem story, and so everything is lost, except for a few well-worn tales about the Salem Witch Trials, and (thanks to Salem Maritime and the Gables) some of the key aspects of its dynamic maritime trade and the work and life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. All those Salem soldiers, in so many wars, forgotten, along with so many Salem artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and just everyday people, leading their ordinary and extraordinary lives. Could we learn more about legal history and the Parker Brothers? Yes, absolutely, but not in isolation, but rather as part of a larger Salem story. Examples abound, from towns and cities which also draw significant numbers of tourists but seem much more intent on presenting their comprehensive history in an accessible and professional manner. Of course, a comprehensive Salem Museum in this space would have to be a collaborative effort, and it would have an impact on other institutions in the city. All of the court house redevelopment proposals stress the “point of entry” feature of their site, located just across from the train station: the new Salem Museum could also serve as an orientation center, freeing up the Salem Maritime National Historic Site to do their own programming and exhibits at the current Visitors Center on Essex Street.  The new Peabody Essex Museum may be planning historic exhibits in the former Phillips Library buildings, or it may not, but its present and future mission certainly does not include providing the comprehensive and chronological introduction to the Salem story that both our residents and our tourists deserve. There are powerful and influential people in our city who could make this happen, and they should.

pixlr-3A few of my favorite local history museums: the Newport Historical Society Museum, the Concord Museum, and the City of Raleigh Museum in North Carolina. Concord is a perfect role model for Salem: it has a historic national park, and several smaller house museums, but grasped the necessity of establishing a central historical museum for the general public in the 1970s.


City of Signs

I have just returned from Raleigh, NC where I attended my stepson’s graduation and made my usual mad dash around the city’s historical sites and streets when not attending attendant graduation festivities! I’ve been to the Raleigh-Durham area many times, but I’ve never really focused on the downtown area of the capital city, so this time I was determined to do so. This region has seen dynamic development for quite some time, and prior visits had given me an impression of sprawling suburbia (apart from the college campuses) which I knew wasn’t entirely accurate. So I spent some time downtown, in the historic Oakwood neighborhood, and at a few historic house museums. In the city center, the attempt to preserve and blend older and new architecture was very apparent, but more than anything I was impressed by the historic markers which are everywhere. At the moment, I’m obsessed with Salem’s inconsistent signage, which is probably one reason Raleigh’s uniform and comprehensive signage was so noticeable to me, and to complete the comparison, I also noted two other essentials of Raleigh’s public history presentation not present in Salem: 1) historic walking tours; and 2) a really great little city historical museum: the City of Raleigh (COR) Museum. Once again I am struck by the amazing commitment that other towns and cities have made towards protecting and presenting their unique heritage, which we seem to take for granted here in Salem.

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20190607_081758Signs everywhere in Raleigh, which has held on to its state heritage markers (even for sites that no longer exist) and added lots more.

I loved the historic Oakwood neighborhood with its mixture of low-slung embellished bungalows and high-style Victorian mansions, but there are some preserved nineteenth-century residences in the immediate downtown as well, several converted to commercial or government uses. The Oakwood neighborhood is apparently not only Raleigh’s largest historic residential district, but North Carolina’s largest “intact 19th century residential neighborhood”, so it’s pretty specialEvery house and garden seemed to be in pristine condition; every porch perfectly positioned. Beyond the Oakwood neighborhood is the historic Oakwood cemetery, which I only had time to run through, and there is a slightly more modest neighborhood of shotgun houses (including some interesting new construction) running alongside that.

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20190609_104252The Heck-Andrews House (under renovation), Polk House, and Executive Mansion in the city center, and Oakwood beyond—and beyond Oakwood.

The oldest houses in Raleigh are two eighteenth-century houses which are now house museums: the Joel Lane House (1769; owned and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America) and the Mordecai House (1785, owned and operated by the City of Raleigh). They are connected, because Joel Lane, a very important figure in the foundation of Raleigh, built the Mordecai (which is pronounced MordeKEY down there) house for his son Henry. There were interesting interpretations in both houses, with domestic life as a primary focus in both, but as the Mordecai House was situated in the midst of an extensive plantation there was more consideration of both slavery and the estate’s role in the development of Raleigh in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Mordecai House is now in the midst of a city park, and additional historic structures have been moved to the site, including the birthplace of Andrew Johnson, about whom I learned a lot. He is one of the the three presidents “claimed” by North Carolina, along with James K.  Polk and Andrew Jackson (what a trio! I can’t help but be a bit more proud of the Adamses and JFK from Massachusetts). While I love the Colonial Dames, I do think they tend to be a bit too dependent on plastic food in their houses, and I am remain a bit confused about the Mordecai family’s connections to the small Jewish community in early nineteenth-century North Carolina.

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20190608_112339Exteriors and Interiors of the Lane and Mordecai Houses + their gardens and the Andrew Johnson birthplace, adjacent to Mordecai.

I really want to give a shout-out to the City of Raleigh Museum, which presented the city’s history in professional and creative ways while focusing on the connections between the past, the present, and the future. It is: right downtown, in the center of everything, free, designed beautifully, completely engaged and engaging. If it were possible, I would love to entice our Mayor and City Council down there so they could see how powerful a real museum of Salem history could be! The museum utilized several different interpretive strategies and media in its presentations: permanent installations which presented an overview of Raleigh’s history around different themes with objects, texts and videos, a revolving spotlight on collection items, and temporary exhibits on topical themes connected to what is going on in Raleigh right now. I was so impressed, and am very envious.

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20190607_140010The City of Raleigh (COR) Museum: a must-visit spot; this last question is existential!

And finally, a food footnote, because food seems to be at the center of every thriving city, and Raleigh is no exception. I am no foodie (although I do appreciate a well-crafted cocktail), but even I was blown away by my meal (and my drinks) at one of Ashley Christensen’s four (soon to be five) Raleigh restaurants: Death and Taxes. Christensen is this year’s James Beard award winner for outstanding chef, and just based on this one experience, I can see why: beautiful restaurant, beautiful food. The food trucks were lined up along Fayetteville Street for the monthly Food Truck Rodeo yesterday, ending our visit on a very lively note.

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20190609_123009Death and Taxes and my companions’ food truck choices, including meatloaf-on-a-stick!


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