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.
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.
Four 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.