Tag Archives: Peabody Essex Museum

Centering History

This summer I’m teaching our department’s capstone course, a seminar in research and writing for which students write long papers on topics of their choosing, sourced by primary materials and grounded in the secondary literature. I do exclude some topics—World War II battles, the assassination of JFK, the Salem Witch Trials, anything too narrative, too big, or that has been done to death, but beyond those considerations, they pretty much have free rein. One of the first times I taught this seminar, more than a decade ago, I had to be much more restrictive, due to the circumstances we all found ourselves in: almost as soon as the semester began our university library was condemned and closed! Teaching a research seminar without a library demanded resourcefulness on my part, and my students: especially in this relatively “dark” time with few databases at our disposal (we obtained a lot more because of the library’s closure, but sadly Salem State cannot afford any of the Adam Matthew databases to which the Peabody Essex Museum has consigned Salem sources from the Phillips Library). I decided that they all had to do local history, and dig into the archives of their hometowns: they were at first resistant, but eventually they did dig in and the end result was a bunch of amazing papers—on trolleys, societies, movements, schools and hospitals, the local experience of the Civil War and World War I, and early efforts to draw tourists to enclaves all around Essex County.  I think my students got a lot out of that seminar, but it also taught me a lot: not being an American historian I wasn’t really aware as to what local historical sources were available and of what stories could be told and what stories could not or were not. Since that time, Salem State has opened a new library, the city of Salem has lost its major historical archive, the Phillips Library, first by severe restriction of access, then by closure and removal to temporary and then permanent locations well out of town, and I began writing this blog.

Local History

Local History MAssHenry Wilder, Map of the County of Essex, Massachusetts. Compiled from the Surveys made by order of the Legislature in 1831-1832, Boston Rare Maps; Ticknor map of Massachusetts, 1835, Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

I no longer insist that my seminar students engage in local historical research—they have many more resources available to them now–but I encourage it, and many of them choose to do so. As a consequence of their choices, and my own indulgence in this blog, I have become much more aware of the availability of local historical resources, both in Essex County and beyond. Years ago, even before the Phillips Library was removed from Salem, access was so restricted that those students interested in researching Salem’s history were disadvantaged comparatively to those focused on other locales; of course now this disadvantage is even more apparent. Students (and everyone) interested in researching Salem’s history can consult the sources (primarily secondary and genealogical but also historic newspapers) in the Salem Room of the Salem Public Library and there are more archival materials at Salem State’s Archives and Special Collections repository in the Berry Library at Salem State. But surrounding our storied (but relatively sourceless!) city are active historical museums, societies, and archives, including the the Marblehead Museum, the Local History Research Center at the Peabody Institute in Peabody, the Danvers Archival Center at the Peabody Institute in Danvers, and the Beverly Historical Society’s Research Library and Archives. A bit farther afield and all around, there are local history centers popping up, many revived and reconstituted historical societies: just this month the Andover Historical Society has become the Andover Center for History & Culture, the Framingham History Center continues to expand its mission and initiatives, the Sudbury Historical Society is creating a new Sudbury History Center & Museum in the town center, and the Lexington Historical Society is building a new Archives Center adjacent to its Munroe Tavern this very summer.

Local History Andover Market

WWI-image-with-exhibit-dateAn Andover Market from the archives of the Andover Center for History & Culture; the Framingham History Center’s current exhibition.

The grandfather of Massachusetts history centers must be the Lawrence History Center, the mission of which is to collect, preserve, share, and animate the history and heritage of Lawrence and its people. That is one great mission statement, and this very active organization clearly strives to fulfill it, offering a stream of symposia, educational programs, presentations, physical and digital exhibits and research services to provide access to and engagement with its archives. Their use of the word “animate” clearly does not refer to a diorama, wax figure, or haunted house!

Local History LawrenceLawrence textile industry strikers in 1912, Lawrence History Center Photographic Collection @Digital Commonwealth.

Appendix:  Three upcoming events for local historians—the first in Salem!

Finding & Sharing Local History workshopMay 31.

The Massachusetts History Conference:  June 4.

Cambridge Open Archives 2018: June 11-15 & June 18-21.


Rolling in Their Graves

I promise: this is the last Phillips Library post for quite some time. It’s been six months since the Peabody Essex Museum admitted, under duress and only because they needed approvals from the Salem Historical Commission, that the Library was moving to a former toy factory off Route One in Rowley, Massachusetts. Since then there has been a public forum, lots of meetings, a succession of newspaper articles in the Salem News and the Boston Globe, a stern letter to the PEM from the President of the American Historical Association, and countless posts by me appealing, edifying, and scolding the Museum’s leadership. All to no avail: the Library–constituting a great part of Salem’s documentary history–is now in Rowley, and from what I hear (from a friend who is desperately trying to finish her Ph.D. dissertation–they didn’t tell her the Phillips was going to close last September either), is set to open sometime in June. Even the Google address (sort of) has changed, so that must be that, right?

Phillips Location

The address of the Phillips has changed but everything else remains the same: photographs of the interior and exterior, and its description: in the Essex Institute Historic District of Salem. If past practices are any indication, this half-correct entry will be up for quite some time: when the Phillips was moved to a temporary location in 2011 for the restoration of the building you see above, the address was never changed. And so I must say that the two men who are referenced in this entry—one visually and the other by name—are likely rolling in their graves after all that has happened. The photograph on the left is of Dr. Henry Wheatland (1812-1893) in one of the Phillips’ smaller reading rooms, around 1885. Dr. Wheatland dedicated his life to the Essex Institute, helping to found it through a merger of the Essex County Natural History Society and the Essex Historical Society in 1848, and serving later as the Institute’s Secretary, Treasurer, and President. As the finding aid to his papers in the Phillips Library asserts, Dr. Wheatland “devoted much of his life to ensuring that the Institute became a ‘permanent centre of influence for the enlightenment and instruction of the community'” and even continued to serve as its President after he was struck with paralysis at age 80, until his death. Wheatland was born in Salem and he died in Salem, and his will, like the wills of many donors to the Essex Institute and its library, left bequests to a Salem institution. I know he was referencing his desire that the Essex Institute’s library should be reference only in his 1893 will, but still: no books [should/to] be taken from the building except in extraordinary circumstances.

Wheatland collage                                                                                  New York Times, 1893.

The prominent and prolific Boston architect, Gridley J.F. Bryant (1816-1899), is another grave-roller, as he was the architect of the Italianate Daland house which has served as part of the Phillips Library in Salem for over a century and would certainly not want to be associated with the suburban industrial building that now constitutes the Phillips Library in Rowley. His name should be removed at once.

Phillips Library Rowley

800px-Bigelow_Chapel_-_080167pv One of Bryant’s more notable commissions: the Bigelow Chapel at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Library of Congress.

I can’t speak for all the people that put their trust in the predecessors of PEM, but fortunately it is a registered non-profit in Massachusetts and so its actions are subject to review by our Attorney General, Maura Healey. Several weeks ago a meticulous brief was delivered to her office formally requesting that the Public Charities Division review the actions of the PEM relative to the Phillips Library under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 12, Section 8H, regarding breaches of trust. The many “Friends of Salem’s Phillips Library” who have emerged over these past six months are sending letters in support of this brief and its request for review, and you can too if you like: Office of the Attorney General/Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division/One Ashburton Place/ Boston, MA 02108.

Some other updates:

Contrary to what I reported here last week, the Working Group organized by Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe is still working: they will have more meetings. Their agenda still seems to be exclusively PEM-driven and they have a very odd understanding of what “collections” constitute, but they are still at work.

It looks like the votes are there for the Salem Historical Commission to approve the demolition of the 1966 “Stacks” building at the rear of Gridley Bryant’s Daland House. Everyone agrees that this space was insufficient to store the vast collections of the Phillips, and it is rather inelegant, as you can see below. When the library was moved in 2011 to a temporary location to accommodate the renovation and expansion of all of the Phillips buildings, it became apparent that this addition was essentially unworkable, given the integrated structure of its construction. The PEM leadership implied that they just learned this in 2017, and so were “forced” to abandon all of the Phillips buildings (and Salem) altogether, but we have learned of several mitigating plans from the intervening years, including those which specified the construction of a brand new “stacks” building. In any case, the present Phillips buildings are not ready to accept all the collections at this time, primarily due to the poor planning of PEM. Rowley can be yet another temporary facility for these materials, but we are continuing to work to bring them back to Salem.

Phillips Stacks The windowless “stacks” addition may soon be coming down. Salem News photograph.

And what about digitization? The fact that the PEM is at least a decade behind comparable institutions in the digitization of its holdings has become common knowledge: the institution itself has acknowledged its deficiency by including “digitization priorities” on the limited Working Group agenda. There is some progress: I noticed just the other day that several records of the Salem Witch Trials have been added to the limited digital collections of the Library. The bulk of Witch Trial records were digitized a decade ago by a team of scholars and have been available at a (much more contextual) site sponsored by the University of Virginia since that time, but there are hopes that the well-endowed PEM will someday provide a global scholarly community with more materials which will elucidate this often-told story, and so many more lesser-known ones.

I’m certainly moving on to other stories. After all, spring has finally arrived, the trillium are out, and there are places to go and more diverse and distant pasts to explore. If there are any new developments, I’ll post them here, but only if they are course-changing.

P.S. And thanks for your patience—especially those of you who are perhaps not quite so interested (obsessed) with this issue!


The G.A.R. is Gone

The Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful veterans organization of Union veterans of the Civil War, was officially disbanded in 1956, following the death of the last Union soldier, Albert Woolson. At its peak, just before the turn of the twentieth century, the G.A.R. was an association possessed of great demographic, political, and social power. With over 400,000 members, it advocated for pensions and other veterans’ benefits at the national level and played multiple fraternal and civic roles in every city and town which had a post: over 7000 across the nation and 210 here in Massachusetts, of which Salem’s Philip H. Sheridan post (#34) was among the oldest and largest. Because of the decentralized nature of the G.A.R., its membership records are found primarily in local repositories, and its successor organization, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, maintains a register of record locations. Salem’s G.A.R. records–16 boxes in all–are in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, and so gone, with the rest of its material heritage, to a storage facility in Rowley.

G.A.R. Salem

G.A.R. Salem AtkinsonGreenlawn Cemetery in Salem, and the 2016 memorial for Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Atkinson.

It is tempting to dismiss the G.A.R. as a dusty and defunct fraternal order which only represented a certain minority of the population, but its impact was consequential: Decoration Day/ Memorial Day as well as more material forms of remembrance and veterans’ benefits are among its legacies. The Library of Congress’s guide to G.A.R. records in its possession highlights several potential subjects for research, including: social and charitable activities of Civil War veterans, the establishment and development of orphans’ and veterans’ pensions, and the post-war political activity of Union veterans as well as the attitudes of Union veterans towards government and the civil service. Many towns and cities–in our region Marblehead and Lynn come to mind immediately–have not only preserved their G.A.R. records but created museums for their interpretation. But Salem’s went to the PEM’s predecessor, the Essex Institute, like the records of most of its organizations, associations, and institutions, because the Essex Institute was Salem’s historical society. The Phillips Library’s finding aid for its G.A.R. records admits that these records create a detailed picture of an active GAR post with a large member base, yet this is a picture we can’t see—or paint—because of their inaccessibility, in apparent violation of the Massachusetts General Laws Part I, Title II, Chapter 8, Section 18:

The histories, relics and mementos of the Grand Army of the Republic of the department of Massachusetts and the records of the Massachusetts department of the United Spanish War Veterans, of The American Legion, of the Disabled American Veterans of the World War, of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, of the American Veterans of World War II, AMVETS, and of the Veterans of the Indian Wars shall be accessible at all times, under suitable rules and regulations, to members of the respective departments and to others engaged in collecting historical information. Whenever any such department ceases to exist, its records, papers, relics and other effects shall become the property of the commonwealth.

G.A.R. Boston 1927 3

G.A.R. collage

historycompleter00naso_0377The Massachusetts State House festooned for a G.A.R. encampment in 1927, Leslie Jones, Boston Globe; images from the History and Complete Roster of the Massachusetts Regiments, Minutemen of ’61 who Responded to the First Call of President Lincoln, April 15, 1861, to defend the Flag and Constitution of the United States (1910).


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”.


Rescinding the Rump

The official response to the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant admission to the removal of Salem’s historical archives to a storage facility in Rowley was the formation of a “Working Group” by Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and PEM CEO Dan Monroe. In partnership, Ms. Driscoll and Mr. Monroe chose the members of this group, identified as “stakeholders”, from among Salem’s local officials and heritage and tourism organizations. I was wary from the very announcement of this group, because I believe that all of Salem’s residents are “stakeholders”, impacted equally by a short-sighted and disrespectful policy which removed the material heritage of a great city. (I also really, really, really dislike that divisive and disingenuous term). Nevertheless, I knew that there were well-intentioned and thoughtful people in this Working Group, so I hoped for the best. Now it appears that the work of the Group is complete: as the agenda for its third (and presumably last) meeting this week includes the item “Final Statement”, I assume it’s a wrap.

So what has been accomplished?  You don’t have to rely on my assessment: it’s all in the public statement issued on behalf of the Working Group on April 10. As a result of these “discussions” (one meeting was a meet-and-greet, the other a tour of the Rowley facility), the PEM has agreed to open Plummer Hall and the Saltstonall Reading Room of the former Phillips Library to the public as a “research facility” stocked with bound editions of the long-running Essex Institute journals the Essex Institute Historical Collections and American Neptune plus terminals that can be used to access “digital information from the Phillips Library”, very few items of which have been digitized!  In fact, one of the few things that the PEM has seen fit to digitize is the American Neptune, and the Essex Institute Historical Collections is available right down Essex Street at the Salem Public Library, so this concession (which was actually announced before the formation of the Working Group) is a joke, an insult, and an outrage.

WG Statement

After I heard that the Working Group was concluding its work, just yesterday, the first image that flew in my head was that of Oliver Cromwell marching into Parliament on April 20, 1653 and dissolving the powerless remnant (Rump) that was all that remained of the Long Parliament for which he had waged a revolution, and afterwards overtaken, with the famously paraphrased speech: You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go! (It was likely a far more colorful dismissal ). An ineffectual body, but yet the only semblance of “representative” government, disbanded just like that. I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who could make such a connection: it must be the April dates—and my preparations for my summer graduate course on early modern English history. Or it might be my desire to find refuge in the past when the present is so bleak.

Rump 1790 BM

Rump West

Rump 1885 Cassells

Rump Cromwell Great MenFour very different Cromwells dissolving the Rump Parliament on April 20, 1653: British Museum, 1790; Benjamin West, 1782, Montclair Museum of Art; and Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

So the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum remains resolute in their decades-long campaign to bury Salem’s history, successfully (so far) employing strategies of restricted access, the redeployment of resources, and a confusing (and likely very, very costly) renovation, aided very ably by the accommodations of our elected officials. There may be some external pressures from this point on, but I am so very sorry that those in positions of power and influence in historic Salem have chosen not to safeguard, much less fight for, its history.


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.


Remember the Armory

The opposition to the Peabody Essex Museum’s removal of Salem’s historical archives to an industrial park in Rowley incorporates a range of perspectives: some people have never been in the Phillips Library but nevertheless have been waiting for its return; others have very concrete memories of childhood forays or later visits to research some specific aspect of their Salem past: their house, their neighborhood, their family. Everyone had great expectations: as the Museum leadership closed the Library in 2011 with promises to return in two years, only to disclose the Rowley move six years later, under duress. Expectations are a powerful motivating force, but so too is distrust: and for those of longer Salem residence the latter is clearly apparent. For them, the PEM’s latest move (literally and figuratively) falls into an established pattern of behavior that has broken trust with the Salem community. And the event that looms largest in this pattern is the demolition of the storied Salem Armory in 2000, under the auspices of the Peabody Essex Museum, which had previously signed a memorandum of agreement to preserve and incorporate the Armory’s headhouse into its expansion plans. Only the Armory entry arch remains on Essex Street, right next door to what used to be the Phillips Library, a constant reminder of what was and what was not preserved.

Armory 2

Salem Armory LOC

Armory Arch

The Salem Armory in 1992, ten years after a ravaging fire, and the year of the Memorandum of Agreement by which the “Museum Collaborative” promised to preserve its headhouse. This was also the same year that the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem were merged to form the Peabody Essex Museum, which was still bound by that agreement. Library of Congress.

The Armory story–of its rise, role, and fall–has been written about many times, and well: the preservation report and narrative for the MOA is here, some colorful context is here, and the story in parts, right up to arrival of the wrecking ball, is here. But one of the most poignant accounts of the Armory (or of any building’s destruction, frankly) that I have ever read is a Letter to the Editor (of the Salem Evening News) written by Salem architect Staley McDermet in 2002, two years after its demolition. Mr. McDermet asks for an apology that I don’t think he–or we–every received, and goes on to document everything that happened. Indeed, the letter is historical in terms of both intent and subject, but it is also a very timely document, in light of the PEM’s recent actions and their explanations for actions in the past, so timely that I thought it should be “published” again.

Armory text 1

Armory text2

Armory text 3

Armory text 4

 


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