Tag Archives: museums

A Displaced Doorway

It’s August, so we’re coming up on the day a year ago when the Peabody Essex Museum quite suddenly closed the doors of its temporary Phillips Library facility in Peabody and issued an ominous and mysterious statement that the Library would be opening up in a “new location” in the spring. In December, the Museum announced admitted that this new permanent location would be the town of Rowley, where it had purchased a utilitarian structure to house its amalgamated “Collection Center” (why is it not Collections Center—just not indiscriminate enough?) And just like that, Salem’s oldest and most comprehensive archive was gone, along with the very special library that had housed it for well over a century. The Collection Center Library, which I cannot bear to call the Phillips, is now open and able to accomodate 14 researchers in what is by all accounts (I haven’t been there yet, but I fear I will have to at some point) a massive structure, yet another indication that this facility was built to house material objects rather than texts: the announcement of its opening featured a curator examining a Chinese object. I’m quite aware that the PEM requires a vast amount of space to house its vast collections: I just don’t understand why this space could not have been found in Salem or why the Library had to be assimilated within it. Through this whole saga, I’ve talked to many people who have been just as upset over the removal of objects from Salem as texts: the assorted Americana and maritime memorials of the former Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. For me, it’s always been exclusively about paper. But just the other day, someone took a picture of the crated doorway of the Gideon Tucker House, being readied for its departure to Rowley I presume, and I started to think about the loss of material culture for the first time when I went over to see it for myself.

Gideon Tucker Doorway 2

Gideon Tucker Doorway

I guess I should be glad that this doorway still exists and is still—or has been–in Salem, as it is a long-admired example of Samuel McIntire’s work; indeed when students from MIT’s pioneering architectural school came to Salem in the summer of 1895 to measure and draw its storied buildings, their professor Eleazer B. Homer identified the elliptical doorway of the Gideon Tucker House (also called the Tucker-Rice House) as the “best-proportioned” in the city. We have photographs of the doorway in situ, but most images of it date from after 1896, when the Tucker house was acquired by the Father Mathew Total Abstinence Society and transformed into an institutional headquarters. By 1910 the famous doorway had been removed and donated to the Essex Institute, which eventually affixed it to the rear of Plummer Hall. I’m not sure when it was removed and placed in storage: Bryant Tolles refers to its relocated situation in his Architecture in Salem (1970) but the doorway of the “Grimshawe House” on Charter Street is affixed to the rear of Plummer at present–and has been for some time.  Across Essex Street, the Gideon Tucker house was further “denatured” by the addition of commercial storefronts in the mid-twentieth century, but fortunately rehabilitated for residences under the supervision of Newburyport architect Jonathan Woodman in the 1980s, at which time it acquired its reproduction entrance.

Tucker collage

Gideon TUcker Brickbuilder 1915

Gideon Tucker NYPLDG

Gideon Tucker PC

gideon-tucker-house-with-commercial-storefront

Gideon Tucker todayThe Gideon Tucker Doorway and House (1804): Frank Cousins photographs from the 1890s; the Brickbuilder, January 1924; New York Public Library Digital Gallery, n.d.; Essex Institute postcard, MACRIS (1979) and present.

The Essex Institute garden must have been a very interesting place to visit in the midst of the twentieth century with its eclectic mix of houses and house parts assembled by George Francis Dow: in addition to the Tucker Doorway, there was a McIntire cupola from the Pickman/Derby/Rogers/Brookhouse Mansion which was demolished in 1915. It was infested with beetles and destroyed in the 1970s, and only its eagle survives. I am grateful that this beautiful doorway has not met a similar fate, along with all the architectural fragments in the PEM’s collections, but the removal from the cultural context which created them makes me anxious for their future significance—and meaning.

Napoleon “Eh bien, Messieurs! deux millions”: Napoleon displaying the treasures of Italy—in France, 1797, Library of Congress.


History is not a Spectator Sport

I was in several New Hampshire towns in the Monadnock region over the past weekend, and in each and every one of them there was a centrally-located History Center or Historical Society, open for business with timely exhibitions on view. These institutions were clearly both engaging and reflecting the collective curiosity of their respective communities, rather than just offering up a commodity or tablets (in whatever media form) of established facts that anyone can look up at any time. And once again I returned to Salem, a city that calls itself “Historic” but yet has no public history museum that is collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting its history and has experienced the removal of most of its archives by the Peabody Essex Museum, in an exasperated state. It’s not that there aren’t some great historical attractions and experiences in Salem: there are. But for the most part, Salem’s “history” is either siloed or for sale: there is no center, no apparent concern for the public record or the public memory, and an overwhelming emphasis on performance or presentation rather than participation.

WOrld War Jaffrey

World War Jaffrey 2

WOrld War HancockHistorical markers are everywhere in New Hampshire—and Salem’s Massachusetts Tercentenary markers are still among the missing; a Sunday afternoon exhibit/gathering at Hancock’s Historical Society.

I have two very specific cases in point to illustrate my assertions. We are in the midst of a national commemoration of World War I, inspired by the United States World War One Centennial Commission, of which all five living presidents serve as honorary co-chairs. All around me there are great local exhibitions on the Great War, from Hancock, New Hampshire in the north (see above) to Framingham and Lexington in the west, to Orleans on the Cape (where the only German attack on American soil occurred 100 years ago last week!) What’s happening here in Salem? Two very discreet digital exhibits, so discreet that I doubt very few people know about them. The Salem Public Library has several collections relating to individual Salem residents’ experiences during World War among their “Digital Heritage” items, including lovely silk postcards received by Anna Desjardins from soldiers stationed “somewhere in France”, and the Salem Veterans’ Services Department of the City of Salem actually has a “World War One Centennial Project” on the city website which I found while I was looking for something else entirely! Great resources here, including photographs of the two units in which Salem soldiers fought, individual biographies and obituaries, and newspaper clips, but where’s the engagement, and where’s the press? The introductory text references a collaboration with the Salem Public Library but I don’t see any links there, nor at the Salem Museum, Destination Salem, or anywhere else that keeps track of Salem events and initiatives, but I’m going to put it out there. This welcome but unheralded effort of 2018 contrasts dramatically with the reception the returning soldiers received a century ago when it seems like every parish and ward turned out for ceremonies and financed the monuments that still stand,  so “time will not dim the glory of their deeds”. I hate to disagree with a monument, but I do think the glory of past deeds is dimmed if awareness of such deeds is limited to a name on a plaque.

EPSON scanner image

World War 101stThe 101st Field Artillery in France, and just three of Salem’s World War I Memorials.

You can also find Salem’s City Seal on the city website, which is described as: a ship under full sail, approaching a coast designated by the costume of the person standing upon it and by the trees near him, as a portion of the East Indies; beneath the shield, this motto: “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum,” signifying “To the farthest port of the rich east”; and above the shield, a dove, bearing an olive branch in her mouth. In the circumference encircling the shield, the words “Salem Condita A.D. 1626” “Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1836. Actually the costume very specifically identifies a native of Banda Aceh, the capital city of the Aceh province of Indonesia, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. Salem’s monopoly of the pepper trade with this region initiated and defined its golden age in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and when the seal was designed in 1836 this connection was not just acknowledged, but sealed. And in the spirit of historical and cultural engagement, the Acehnese dance company Suang Budaya Dance will be performing the traditional “Dance of  the Thousand Hands” at the (30th!) annual Salem Maritime Festival this coming weekend—on the very wharf where Salem ships once departed for their native land and returned to discharge “Salem Pepper”. The folks at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site know how to pay tribute to the past by engaging the present and the City of Salem should take a lesson: though perhaps war and trade are simply not hip, funky or witchy enough to attract the attention of City Hall.

Active Sport Salem City Seal


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”.


Where’s the Fire (Engine)?

Exactly one hundred years ago in Salem, people were flocking to the Essex Institute to see a piece of Salem history that had recently been returned to their fair city: a Georgian fire-fighting engine, by all contemporary accounts the oldest in America. Here we see a complete reversal of the situation we find ourselves in now, with the Essex Institute’s successor, the Peabody Essex Museum, shipping out the city’s material history rather advocating for its return—and showcasing it. The Union hand-tub engine was imported from Great Britain by one of Salem’s first private fire-fighting companies, the Union Fire Club, established in 1748. In the following year the company placed its order for one of Richard Newsham’s recently-patented “water engines for the quenching and extinguishing of fires”, and it arrived in Salem in 1750.

Fire Engine Colonial WilliamsburgA Newsham Engine of similar vintage @Colonial Williamsburg.

The Union was in service for quite some time as far as I can tell, but by the middle of the nineteenth century both its technology and its company was obsolete: steam and public fire-fighting departments were replacing hand-tubs and clubs. On a ceremonial visit to Philadelphia in the summer of 1866, a few remaining members of the then Union and Naumkeag Fire Club gifted their hosts, the William Penn Hose Company, with the Union. This provoked a “great hue and a cry” at home in Salem, but the old engine was not returned until 1917: and right into the Essex Institute it went. (I am wondering if Salem’s experience of conflagration in 1914 inspired the City of Brotherly Love to return the Union as a sympathetic gesture, but cannot find any confirmation of this theory).

Fire 1865

Fire Union 1866 Collage

Fire PhotoRobert Newall photograph of the William Penn Hose Company in Philadelphia with their steam engines, 1865, The Library Company; Harper’s Weekly photograph of the Union, “the oldest fire-engine in the United States” in 1866; a photograph of the Union in an article announcing its return to Salem in The American City, January 1918.

You can easily discern how important the threat of fire and the organization of fire-fighting was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by browsing through the online catalog of the Phillips Library, where the papers of the Union and Naumkeag Club are held, along with its predecessor club, the Union and Essex, and myriad other fire clubs: the Active, Alert and Amity clubs, Engine #9, the Enterprise Club, the Franklin Hook & Ladder No. 1, the Friend Engine Company, the Old Fire Club, the Social Club, the Reliance Hose Company, and the Relief Fire Club, among others. I do appreciate the PEM’s digitized library catalog, although it does not quite compensate for the lack of digitized items, or their removal from Salem. However, as I have been meeting and talking to people who have much longer associations with the PEM’s predecessors and the Phillips Library than I do, I am increasingly aware that they are missing objects as much as texts, and those objects are difficult to locate, both on the web and in reality. In the company of the “world-class” museums it claims to be, the Peabody Essex does not seem to be committed to comparative open access, to either its texts or its objects. Several years ago, one could search through a “collection gateway” that seemed to yield access to a good part of the PEM collections (it can still be accessed here but appears to be functional only in accessing items from the Native American collection), now we can only see selected “highlights”. Try comparing the collections portals of say, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or even the Worcester Art Museum, with that of the Peabody Essex Museum: and see how little you will yield. I wouldn’t know where to find the Union online: the Phillips Library finding aid description states that both it and an oil painting entitled The Union Hand-Tub by W.B. Eaton are in the PEM collections, but they are both absolutely unattainable in both digital and actual forms: a regression, certainly, from 1918.

Fire brochure

Fire 1970s

firebucket_fpoThe Union and some fire buckets were featured prominently in a 1978 Essex Institute booklet: Museum Collections of the Essex Institute by Huldah Smith Payson, and fortunately for us, one of those very same buckets is one of the PEM’s online highlights of its American art collection.


Salem Film Fest 2018

It is that time of year again: time for the annual Salem Film Fest, now in its eleventh year and very firmly established on the cultural calendar. Over the years, it has been very inspiring to see the festival’s growth: in terms of participation, attendance, offerings and impact. The care taken with curation is always very apparent to me: resulting in a nice balance of films with themes that are global and local, environmental and material, very serious and a bit more whimsical. One of the first films I saw at the festival was Grown in Detroit, way back in 2011: this was an interesting window into the urban crisis playing itself out in Detroit at the time and this year’s Beauty and Ruin offers another by focusing on the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, which some thought might provide a solution to the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. I’m really looking forward to this film: as most of you know, the sanctity (and proximity) of a community’s treasures are important to me, and this film will be playing in PEM’s lovely Morse Auditorium!

FilmFest

FilmFest2 Stills and scenes of Detroit past and present in Beauty and Ruin.

I have a friend who oversaw the recent Skinner auction of items from Avis and Eugene Robinson’s collection of African American history (and also this beautiful–but troubling—catalog), so I’m also interested in seeing Black Memorabilia, which examines “the subculture around the collectibles and antiques that serve as reminders of America’s troubled racial past and present”. And speaking of subcultures, I might go for Mermaids, in which a select group of individuals idolize, identify and occasionally “become” sirens of the sea. In keeping (somewhat) with the marine theme, the South Korean film Old Marine Boy about a daring North Korean deep-sea diver in the South, looks amazing. On a very different note, I’m kind of interested in seeing Rodents of Unusual Sizeabout the enormous orange-toothed swamp rats (nutria) which have infested the waters of Louisiana post-Katrina and oil spills, but I’m not quite sure I want to spend so much time with these odious creatures on the big screen.

Mermaids Film

Old Marine Boy

Rodents2Scenes from Mermaids, the Old Marine Boy, and the poster for Rodents of Unusual Size.


A Thin Veneer of Heritage

Six weeks into the struggle to convince the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum to return its Phillips Library to Salem, I find myself with lost faith and many learned lessons. The phrase “broken trust” has been applied to the PEM’s actions many times over these past weeks, but that is too legal a concept for me: I prefer to think in terms of faith, encouraged by Victor Hugo’s lovely observation that A library implies an act of faith which generations, still in darkness hid, sign in their night in witness of the dawn. Under the guise of preservation and with a consistent disdain for accessibility and accountability, the PEM leadership broke faith with the community of Salem, and now I have lost faith in them. I’m trying to separate the leadership from everyone else who works at this large Museum, in effect the Museum itself from the policy regarding the Library and its collections, but that’s tough to do when such an all-encompassing feeling as faith is in play. Working on it.

PEM East India Room collageThe interior of the East India Marine Hall past and present, and before the installation of the PEM’s newest exhibition, Play Time.

I’ve learned many lessons over these past weeks but I think the most important one is about prejudging in general and my own prejudices in particular. I’ve been concerned about the commodification of history in Salem for quite some time (as regular readers are all too aware!) and assumed that this trend was driven exclusively by the many tour guides in town, who were presumably more concerned with #tourismmatters than heritage. Now I know that that predisposition is largely incorrect, as I have seen and heard tour guides take earnest and public stances in support of the return of the Phillips while established heritage institutions have stood silently on the sidelines, taking no position and choosing not to exercise their more considerable influence. I remain impressed, and heartened, by the power of history to unite a broad spectrum of people, although at the same time I realize that history, or the perception of one’s history, is also intensely personal.

Essex Institute 1980

Phillips RizviThe Collections of the Essex Institute in the Phillips Library Reading Room, 1980, and the library collections reinstalled, 2008, Rizvi Architects.

I’ve been having difficulty separating the personal from the professional in my reaction to the PEM’s policy towards the Phillips ever since the “announcement” was made—actually I don’t even think I can get past the “announcement”, or lack thereof! But I better try, because obviously no apologies will be forthcoming; instead PEM CEO Dan Monroe offered only the assertion that there was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand in last week’s Boston Globe article. I certainly wasn’t expecting a consultation, but an announcement might have been nice, especially as the PEM’s last official word on the Phillips was that it would be returning to Salem in……..2013.

Thank goodness, when confronted with such adversity, healthy instincts of self-preservation begin to take over, and so I’ve started to privilege the professional over the personal in my considerations. When I look at the situation from the former perspective it is clear to me that I don’t need the Phillips Library in Salem or even in Rowley. I have a car, a Ph.D., and a flexible schedule so I can probably gain access to the new warehouse library during one of the 12 hours a week or so that it will be open (well maybe not, after my running commentary over these past weeks) if I want to. In any case, I’m an English historian, fortunate to be equipped with academic databases and dependant on repositories that have made the accessibility of their collections a priority. Local history is just a lark for me, right?  Unfortunately, private priorities only work for a while: when I start thinking about all those records relating to Salem people, places and institutions, and all those Salem donors, I find myself right back in the realm of public history.

Actually, I do have three presentations coming up this year on the intersection of the Colonial Revival and historic preservation movements here in Salem—all of which were scheduled just before the temporary Phillips facility closed down on September 1, ostensibly so that materials could be readied for the big move to Rowley (which was not, of course, announced at that time). I was looking forward to using the library’s collections intensively for the first time in my career, an opportunity that will sadly not come to pass. I’ll have to make do, and I will make do, with the help of other institutions that have made their materials more accessible and lots of secondary sources, but I fear I will only be scratching the surface of this Salem story without the Phillips sources.

Colonial Stairway Wallis 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis Stairs 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis 1887

Colonial Seating collage

Colonial Tables Wallis 1887

Colonial Doorway Salem Wallis 1887

Colonial Gates Wallis 1887And I really fear I’ll be too reliant on the detailed-yet-romantic work of Maine-born architect Frank E. Wallis, whose reverence for Salem is all too apparent! Plates from Frank E. Wallis, Old Colonial Architecture and Furniture. Boston: George H. Polley & Co. Publishers, 1887. 


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.


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