Tag Archives: Local History

African-American History at the Phillips Library

On the occasion of the Martin Luther King holiday here in Salem and across the country, I thought I would highlight some sources for African-American history in the major repository for local history in our region, which is of course the PEM’s Phillips Library. I am aware of several scholars interested in various aspects of Salem’s rich African-American history: in the community, at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and at Salem State University: my colleague Bethany Jay’s bookUnderstanding and Teaching American Slavery, is serving as a resource for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative on slavery, and two of our graduate students received SPLC research fellowships last year. Bethany’s work is national in scope, but I don’t know how anyone interested in Salem’s African-American history could possibly engage in research, given the present closure of the library, the restriction of hours and staff before that, and the decade-long disinterest in digitization. That said, the digitized catalog reveals some amazing sources, including the papers of the Waters family (MSS 92), members of which were actively engaged in both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation ownership, as well as records of Salem’s various abolitionist societies, the records of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, various diaries, lists and logbooks, the Remond family papers, and two letters from the author, poet, educator and activist Charlotte Forten Grimké to John Greenleaf Whittier (which I’m not sure are available anywhere else, certainly not in this 1911 collection of Whittier’s correspondence, published in Salem). Unfortunately the finding aid for the Whittier letters refers to Forten incorrectly as a former slave: she was in fact a “free woman of color” sent by her relatively affluent and connected Philadelphia family to Salem to receive an integrated education in the Salem public schools (while living with the Remond family) after which she enrolled in the Salem Normal School (the precursor of SSU), as its first African-American student, in 1855. Just before her graduation a year later, she was summoned to the Principal’s office to hear the happy news that she was to be offered a teaching position at the Epes School on Aborn Street Court. The entry in her wonderful journal cannot contain her excitement: in the conservative, aristocratic old city of Salem!!! Wonderful indeed it is!…..Can it be true?

AA Phillips collage

Charlotte Forten

AA Phillips Liberator Forter 1856 Aug 1

The records of the country’s first female abolitionist society, the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (of which Forten was a member), are in the Phillips Library, as are those of the Salem Lyceum, which hosted the Society’s lecture series, as well as those of many other Salem organizations. A cabinet photo of Charlotte Forten [Grimké], c. 1878, New York Public Library, and a story on Forten in The Liberator, shortly after her appointment in 1856.

In the broad sweep of Salem’s African-American history, as in its general history, there are moments of achievement and pride and moments of disgrace and regret. Locally, we are accustomed to hearing about Salem’s glorious China trade but not its more abhorrent exchanges. But we appear to be in the midst of a Renaissance in the study of American slavery, with the impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North subject to particular revision and reexamination. PEM curator Gordon Wilkins’ reexamination of two prized colonial portraits that have been in the Museum’s collection since 1878 views Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch, the former a very active slave trader, in a new light, reflected by this revisionist history.

Fitch Portraits

Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch in Peabody Essex Museum’s American art galleries (photo courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum).

Wilkins asserts that PEM is committed to examining overlooked histories embodied in the objects that comprise our vast collections, and one hopes that this commitment will one day extend to the papers in the vast collections of the Phillips. Because there is a lot more to learn, and a lot less to overlook. I’m going to close with the comments of one of our graduate students at SSU, Thomas Landers (because I find that engaged graduate students are always very good at telling us what they–and us–need), in reference to the Waters-owned ship Abeona, which engaged in the slave trade between Senegal and Cuba in the 1790s. There’s a court case that sheds some light on the Abeona’s trade but its owner’s papers “sit locked away among the documents from other Salem families which traded in human flesh–names such as Fairfield, Smith, Ropes, Crowninshield, Grafton–in the Phillips Library collections, threatened to be removed from the city to which we owe their creation and preservation”.


Public History

I have to admit that, having written this blog for seven years (unbelievable–seems like a month!), an enterprise I undertook because I wanted to indulge my own curiosity but also learn to write less for an academic audience and more for the general public, and serving as chair of a department that has a very popular concentration in Public History, I never really understood what public history was until I became involved with this movement to resist the relocation of the Phillips Library away from Salem. Now I know that history is a commodity, for lack of a better word, that has limitless value, and also the power to unite all sorts of people: young, old, natives, newcomers, liberals, conservatives (well, this is Massachusetts) and those who fit into none of these categories. It’s hard to define this commodity which is also a force, because people have very different ideas about what history is: for some it is all about family, for some it is all about civic pride, for some it is about sacrifice, for others it is about heroism, for some it is about books, for others images, or things: for all, heritage. I’m used to presenting history, both here and in my professional life, but this has been a month of listening to people talking about their history. And with each assertion about their history, their power grew, eventually turning a one-way announcement (admission, really) into a two-way dialogue. Tomorrow night, we will see the very public acknowledgement of that dialogue at two events in two locales: a forum at the Peabody Essex Museum in which the leadership will lay out their plans for the (ware-)housing of the Phillips historical and literary collections along with all of the material objects not on view in a consolidated stewardship/storage facility in Rowley occuring at the same time as the Salem City Council will debate a resolution calling for the PEM to work towards “keeping Salem’s treasured history in Salem”.

Phillips Forum with border

Phillips Friends Letter with border

Phillips ResolutionFlyer for the 1/11 forum, position letter of newly-revived “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library”(which is so new that it is homeless but I think it is going to wind up here) & Salem City Council resolution (converted pdfs–sorry about the lack of clarity).

What a night! I am both excited and nervous, but ultimately grateful to be part of this community conversation about something that so many people recognize as important: and this very community as well. I will report back on the day after, and then I promise to move onto some other subjects, patient readers (although I suspect that this conversation will go on for some time).

Phillips mss447_b3f8_seriesi_womantwoboys Social ServicesOne of my very favorite photographs from the Phillips collections that I’ve found while DREDGING every and all online sources this month: from the anniversary of the Children’s Friends & Family Services, Inc. (Phillips MSS 447), 1839-2003, which began life as the Salem Seamen’s Orphan Society and has 54 boxes of records on deposit in the Phillips.

 


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


Severed from Salem

Reading through the Phillips Library catalog is an activity that is simultaneously enticing and frustrating: one can glean the scope of the collections but not access them, provenances are presented but not deeds of gift or deposit (which is standard). Given the missions of its two founding institutions, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Phillips’ collections are both regional and global in nature, but one cannot fail to notice the prominence of Salem materials, consequences of content and/or bequest. To supplement that perception, just browse through the century-old Essex Institute Bulletins digitized by the Internet Archive, where you can easily access long lists of donations and deposits from descendants of scores of old Salem families and every type of organization: public, civic, commercial, religious, fraternal and sororal (a word I had to look up!). As is always the case in the Witch City, there’s too much focus on witch trial records: the tragedy of the removal of the Phillips Library by the Peabody Essex Museum is the vast amount of personal and institutional history–a cumulative cultural memory– that will be severed from Salem. Let me offer up just one collection of papers as an illustration: the Almy, Butler, and Robson Family Papers, which encompass the activities and associations of three intertwined Salem families from 1804 to 1982. Through these records, we can (or could) examine the rise and fall of one of Salem’s most prominent department stores, Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn (1858-1985), a particular phase in the history of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Wesley United Methodist Church on North Street, which donated its archives to the Phillips as well), an edited manuscript of Katherine Butler Hathaway’s famous memoir The Little Locksmith (!!!!!), and considerable correspondence and materials relative to her niece Elizabeth “Libby” Reardon Frothingham’s energetic advocacy for historic preservation both during and after Salem’s battle with urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Personal perspectives on Salem’s history.

Almys PC

Salem-Wesley-ME-Churchx

Phillips PC Just two Salem institutions whose records are preserved in the Phillips Library, and the Essex Institute in its heyday.

The personal nature of historical materials works both ways: the people of Salem should be enabled to engage with their history in a personal way. When I read the detailed catalog entry and finding aid for the Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, I think of the Almy’s clock that still stands on Essex Street, the first time I read The Little Locksmith, just a few years ago, and Elizabeth Reardon’s house histories for Historic Salem, Inc., which I used as a model for my own reports way back when I first moved to Salem and wanted to learn about my new city house by house. I’ve read about her exciting “discovery” of two Salem first-period houses hiding in (somewhat) plain sight, and just last year, I visited the ongoing restoration of her former house, and saw the cupboards where her records–memorials of decades of service to Salem– were stored. And now they’re off to Rowley?

Reardon 4

Gedney House

Severed 3

Severed 4The Gedney House on High Street, soon after its discovery by Elizabeth Reardon and restoration by Historic New England, and an excerpt from Julie Arrison-Bishop’s article “A Witness to Four Centuries in Salem”, Historic New England Summer 2015; 1965 Boston Globe article on Elizabeth’s discovery of the Samuel Pickman House (hiding under a mansard roof), and the Pickman House today, with the Peabody Essex Museum in the background.


Snow & Inaccessibility

Dear readers: I had a lovely plan for the blog this December, including light, frothy and festive posts about fairies, puddings, and GIN. But then the Peabody Essex Museum was forced to admit that they have no intention of returning the historical collections of the Phillips Library to Salem at a Historic Commission meeting on December 7, a day that shall forever live in infamy in Salem’s history—maybe. So now I am seeing a different kind of red than the holiday kind, and am going to have to process this development for some time, here and elsewhere. I’ve never lived in a time or place when a community’s heritage was so brazenly and cruelly threatened, and it’s pretty much all I can think about. Fair warning. I do feel a bit guilty about this, however, so I am going to intersperse my PEM post today, which addresses the issue of inaccessibility, with photographs of our first snow of the season. This will make for a rather incongruous presentation, but it’s the best I can offer at the moment.

Inaccessibility2

A few little scenes from Satuday’s public protest against the relocation of the Phillips Library’s collection– essentially Salem’s archives–to a large conservation facility in Rowley.

There are so many issues to address regarding this relocation/removal, primarily because the Museum (and by “Museum”, I am always referring to the Museum leadership; many curators and staff are part of the Salem community while the leadership and vast majority of of trustees live elsewhere, consequently there is a deafness and a disconnect on the part of the latter) is very slippery, and changes its rationales according to necessity–or audience. At the December 7th meeting, Facilities Director Bob Monk seemed to stress the importance of office space, and because that meeting made news, Executive Director Dan Monroe was pressed to come out with a statement, at long last, on the following day, in which he emphasized the inability of the existing Phillips Buildings, Plummer Hall and the Daland House, to accommodate the collection under proper conditions. This inability has presented the museum with a “great” opportunity, according to Mr. Monroe: to unify the Museum’s renowned art and culture collection with the Phillips Library collection at new 112,000-square-foot Collections Center located in Rowley. This new center, which keeps the Library collection accessible in Essex County, will become operational by mid-2018 and will feature highly secure, climate-controlled space for storage for the collections and extremely handsome and functional spaces for a Library reading room, staff offices, conservation, and other operations. The Library will continue to welcome researchers from around the world and PEM’s skilled librarians will continue to assist patrons during the reading room’s public hours. Mr. Monroe addresses accessibility several other times in his statement, and Mr. Monk also referenced accessibility on the 7th: “Our goal here is, really, to make the collections actually more accessible, not less”. Increasing accessibility is probably the one constant claim that the Museum has been making, since it shut down the Phillips Library in 2011 with promises to return in a few years. But they have not, and odds are that they will not.

Snow1

Snow 2

Snow 3

A little snow intermission! Now back to work. 

There are three types of accessibility relevant to this discussion: physical, demographic, and digital. Obviously Rowley (which is a lovely town by the way; I have nothing against it, I just don’t want Salem’s history to be located there) is distant from Salem and the PEM’s large warehouse will not be accessible by train or by foot, only by car. Nearly every single major independent research and/or museum library in the United States is located in an urban area reachable by mass transportation: the Phillips will be the first to be transferred in its entirety to a suburban satellite facility. Given its storied history which is so based on place, we can reasonably ask if the Phillips Library will simply cease to exist.

Snow 7

As to demographic accessibility, who are they going to let into their warehouse, their gated community? Monroe’s statement says “researchers”, which could include anyone and everyone: I guess we’ll find out at the public forum which was also announced in his statement on January 11 @ 6:00 at Morse Auditorium in the museum. The last issue I want to address is digital accessibility, because I think there are many misperceptions about this based on several articles dating from the time of the Phillips’ closure in 2011. Very little of the Phillips Collection has been digitized, surprisingly little for an institution which raised $650 million in its recent Advancement Campaign:  less than 100 of their 2 million manuscript items are accessible online, with an emphasis on the trivial (ocean liner ephemera and vintage valentines). What has been digitized is much of their catalog: we know what treasures are contained in the collection, we just can’t access them.

NEXT UP: DONORS.


Shameless Stewards

On Wednesday night the Peabody Essex Museum finally came before the Salem Historic Commission and admitted that the “bulk” of collections in their Phillips Library, consisting of archives which generations of Salem families, businesses, and organizations have donated to this Salem institution, would not return to Salem after a prolonged period in which these records were housed in a temporary facility during which the library was supposedly being “renovated”.  We know now that the renovation consisted of transforming the historic library into offices: only when permissions for exterior changes were required did the Museum have to come before the Historic Commission, and everything was revealed. In an article by Dustin Luca in The Salem News, PEM facilities director Bob Monk admitted that this meeting “didn’t go quite as planned. Our intent on it was to be about architecture, and we got word just prior to the meeting that there was a lot of social media activity surrounding the collections.” Gee, maybe the citizens of Salem were upset that their material heritage was being stolen from them, without even the courtesy of a press release!

Phillips

Phillips2

All is lost PhillipsPhotographs of the James Duncan Phillips Library from less than a decade ago, after a substantial renovation by Rizvi  Architects, which included “the addition of climate-controlled archives, galleries, reading rooms, and a new compact storage space for the library’s extensive collection”. It was closed only a few years after this rehabilitation.

The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, but I kept waiting, hoping, praying for the Phillips to be returned to us–or at the very least some sort of announcement as to its fate. I guess we didn’t deserve one. Much more context is in my “Losing our History” post back in August, when the Library simply announced it would close down completely so that its collections could be moved from the temporary facility to what now will be their permanent home–a large conservation facility in Rowley. If you go to that post, (which you should, because it’s quite good if I do say so myself and I’m too upset to write anything that coherent right now) you will see a comment from John D. Childs, the newly-appointed Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library in which he states if you had reached out to PEM prior to writing this post, we might have been able to allay some of your concerns. Let me assure you that further information answering many of your questions will be forthcoming in the coming weeks. Well, my concerns are not allayed, obviously,  and we heard nothing from the PEM until they needed something from a city board—but I really must contact the family of Ann C. Pingree, as well as every overseer and trustee whose address I can lay my hands on.

All is Lost new plans

The Museum’s current architects, Schwartz/Silver, are transforming the Plummer and Daland buildings, which have housed the Phillips Library for over a century, into a glass-conjoined office building.

Before this big reveal, I happened to come across an article written by Dan L. Monroe, the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the PEM and Robert N. Shapiro, President of its Board of Trustees, in which the two men chide the trustees of the Berkshire Museum for “violating the public trust” for planning to sell 40 works in its collection. In the opinions of Mr. Monroe and Mr. Shapiro, Trustees of a nonprofit museum are fiduciaries who are responsible for representing and acting in prudent ways to assure that museum collections, facilities and funds are used as intended to benefit the public…..these works of art were given to the Berkshire Museum by individuals who intended that they be presented and shared with the public on a permanent basis. The Board of the Berkshire Museum was entrusted with the responsibility to fulfill these donor intentions and to serve as responsible stewards of the art given to the museum to be forever accessible to the people of Pittsfield, the citizens of the Commonwealth and the American public at large. This from two men who have been planning and plotting to sever Salem from its material and historical heritage for quite some time: and what about the “donor intentions” of all those Salem residents, who left their cherished possessions and papers to an institution which promised to act as a “responsible steward”? History is as much a public commodity as art, I would argue even more so, but that is a truth that the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum has never embraced, much less acknowledged.


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