Tag Archives: public history

Losing our History

The national discussion over Confederate war memorials is centered on the implicit question: who owns history? Often that is a question that is difficult to answer because in fact everyone owns history. Interpreted in a material way, however, it’s possible to be more literal: in terms of sources, for example, it is quite apparent that the Peabody Essex Museum owns Salem’s history.  The PEM’s Phillips Library, the third largest museum library in the United States, is the largest repository of historical records of Salem and Essex County by far: its holdings encompass the papers and records of innumerable Salem families and organizations, the definitive collection of Hawthorniana, all sorts of records relating to Salem’s China Trade, including logbooks, customs records, merchant account books, hand-colored plates of ships, maps, and the Frederick Townsend Ward collection, one of the world’s largest collections of Western-language materials on Imperial China. The Library holds a million historic photographs, including rare nineteenth-century views of Asia, the archives of Edwin Hale Lincoln, Frank Cousins and Samuel Chamberlain, and the complete North American Indian portfolio of Edward S. Curtis. The Edward Sylvester Morse collection of Japanese language books is just one small part of a 400,000-volume collection which began in 1799. The physical size of the entire collection is best expressed by numbers: 5000 linear feet of manuscripts, over 1000 linear feet of archives, 3,000 linear feet of newspapers, 135 linear feet of ephemera and nearly 5000 reels of microforms. The bulk of this collection was compiled when the Phillips Library was part of the Essex Institute (established in 1848), which merged with the Peabody Museum to form the new Peabody Essex Museum in 1992. As part of a new, ever-expanding museum which privileges the global and the sensational over the local and the historical, the Phillips Library’s mission has clearly changed: to what I do not know. But more importantly, it has become increasingly restrictive and inaccessible, and absent: it was closed for renovations in 2011 and its collections were moved to a facility in Peabody and now it is moving on to another (temporary?) facility even further away, in Rowley. According to one succinct statement regarding this move, and supposedly to facilitate it, all access to collections will be suspended from September 1, 2017 through March 31, 2018.

Phillips Library 1885

Phillips Ladies

Phillips Logbook Horace

Gentlemen in the Phillips c. 1885, and ladies outside Plummer Hall on Essex Street, which housed the Library for over a century; Logbook from the ship Horace, first decade of the 19th century.  All images in this post (except those from the Essex Institute Historical Collections Volume 113, no. 3 below) are from the Library’s social media accounts: Twitter and Instagram. The Library’s wonderful blog, Conversant, has been shut down, but you can still see some of the images it featured on Pinterest.

The lingering detachment of the Phillips Library has been nothing short of tragic for Salem, as it long served, in purpose and in effect, as the city’s historical society. While other towns in Essex County developed historical societies and museums over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Salem did not, because it already had one: a vast repository of private (and public) records right in its midst. You can see–and read—Salem citizens engaging with the Essex Institute and the Phillips Library (with their history) in the pages of the long-running (and thankfully digitizedEssex Institute Historical Collections, which is full of recollections and memorials as well as historical analyses of materials in the Library’s collection. Given Salem’s dynamic past, the lack of an accessible and engaging repository of its heritage has resulted in historical interpretations that are entrepreneurial at best, and crassly commercial for the most part: is it any wonder that we have a statue to a television character in our central public square?

Phillips EIHC

Phillips Map 1806

Phillips Certificate

Phillips Cushing

One of my very favorite volumes of the EIHC from July 1977: focused on a coincidental exhibition at the Essex Institute on the life and times of the Salem’s famous diarist, the Reverend William Bentley. It’s full of insights and images, including: a plan of South Salem Bridge and Lafayette Street, c. 1806, a certificate for the Salem Iron Factory, c. 1800, and a print and portrait of Salem printer Thomas C. Cushing, c. 1806 and 1816. Along with social media, these volumes might be our only avenue of access into the Phillips Library for a while…..

There are many curious, engaged and energetic people in Salem who clearly crave a closer, more introspective connection to the city’s complex past but I wonder how this can be achieved when we have so little access to our material heritage? That’s the big question, but I have so many more. Why haven’t more of the Library’s collections been digitized? That seemed to be the intent several years ago, but I only see a few digitized collections on the Museum’s website (volumes of The American Neptune, images of the Great Salem Fire, ocean liner ephemera, vintage valentines, the Winthrop family papers): this is a scant amount of material in relation to the Library’s entire collection and in comparison with the efforts of other comparable libraries. What about public records? The Phillips holds the major legal records of the Salem Witch Trials, the Essex County Court Archives, which were deposited at the Essex Institute by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1980, as well as the records of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County. These records have been transcribed, printed, and digitized (at the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project) but don’t we still have a legal right to access the actual documents? I would imagine that the representatives of all those Salem families and institutions (the Appletons, the Crowninshields, the Derbys, the Peabodys, the Active Fire Club, the Salem Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor, the Salem Female Charitable Society, the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association, the Salem Marine Society……I could go on and on and on…..) assumed that when they placed their records in the safe-keeping and under the stewardship of the Phillips Library that they would form part of a public archive for posterity: otherwise what is the point? And finally, I am thinking–and wondering–about my Americanist colleagues and how they’re going to conduct their research come tomorrow, when I will have more tools and materials at my disposal as an English historian here in Salem than they will.

Phillips 1687 deed

Phillips Reward of Merit

Phillips Chairs

Phillips collage

Phillips Peabody

Phillips Cousins

More random treasures from the Phillips Library: a 1687 deed conveying Rumney Marsh to Colonel and Mrs. Paige; a reward of merit bestowed upon Elizabeth S. McKinstry; a plate from Robert Manwaring’s Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companions (1765); just two broadsides; George Peabody’s letterbooks; a Frank Cousins photograph of the entrance to the Andrew Safford House. These tweets and posts from @pemlibrary are lifelines!


Salem and “Dark Tourism”

For a while I’ve been wondering where Salem fits into the academic field of “Dark Tourism”, a term coined by Scottish tourism professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in 1996 and utilized by a succession of authors, operating from a variety of perspectives and within several disciplines, over the past thirty years. There is even an Institute for Dark Tourism Research (at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK), and its director, Philip Stone, has crafted the most succinct definition of a concept-in-progress to date: ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’. While this certainly sounds like October in Salem to me, it could also apply to many heritage tourism sites: Civil War battlefields, World War One cemeteries, concentration camps—much of Dark Tourism literature is concerned with the memorialization of the Holocaust. Certainly one could call a visit to the 9/11 Memorial an expression of Dark Tourism, and maybe even the Fabulous Ruins tour in Detroit. Dark Tourism is about death and suffering, but it can also be about remembrance and awareness.

prypiat-ukraine

dark-tourism-salem

The abandoned town of Prypiat in Ukraine, now a stop on the Chernobyl tour, ©Getty Images; Charter Street Cemetery in Salem.

Call me cynical, but I don’t think the majority of Salem’s witch businesses or tourists are focused on remembering the names and experiences of Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd and  Elizabeth Howe. They seem to be indulging in a sub-category of Dark Tourism called “Fright Tourism” (which itself seems to be a sub-category of Morbid Tourism–and there are many other sub-categories, such as “grief tourism” and “disaster tourism”–as well as a more academic umbrella term, Thanatourism ) identified by Westfield State geographers Robert S. Bristow and Mirela Newman, in which the authors compare two major Halloween destinations: established Salem and Romania, emerging center of Dracula tourism. They conclude that “the fantasy afforded by Salem or the one proposed in Romania is basically harmless to the visitor, yet may degrade the quality of life for the local population”. While I find no argument with that statement, I’m as focused on historical memory as economic infrastructure in Salem (probably more so) so I’m looking for a more comprehensive, cultural analysis. At this point, I’m not sure that the literature of Dark Tourism is going to satisfy me, but two titles just might: Tiya Miles’ Tales from the Haunted South. Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era and Stone’s and Richard Sharpley’s The Darker Side of Travel: the Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism.

The more I delved into this literature, the more I realized that Gettysburg (rather than Romania!) might be the best comparison for Salem so I would love to hear any insights about the tourism scene there, and I also think it may be all about GHOSTS. A post on the Gettysburg Compiler, a great blog written by the students and staff of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, really resonated with me when I read it a while ago. The author, Susan Johnson, writes about her experience at a Civil War conference panel on Dark Tourism. On the panel was a ghost tour leader in Gettysburg, who tacitly implied that the Park Service’s efforts to portray complex historical interpretations to the public were too mentally exhausting for the average tourist, who, instead of wanting to engage with the big questions of Civil War history, would rather have fun learning about the Civil War through the means of a ghost tour. One of the main points the panel argued was that Dark Tourism was the new way of tourism, a “fun” and “spooky” way for tourists to engage with the past. I left the panel disgusted by the macabre fascination with death and the exploitation of the very real suffering of men and women living from 1861-1865 to sell a few tickets and walk around town at night with a goofily-clad individual holding a lantern and telling ghost stories that usually are not true. Bingo, just substitute 1692.

dark-tourism-tales-from-the-haunted-south-book-cover

dark-tourism-collage

Looking for some insights into Dark Tourism, “haunted heritage”, and Salem (always Salem!). The travel writer J.W. Ocker lived as one of us last October, so this book should be interesting–it’s just coming out now.


Conflagration Commemoration

Across the Atlantic, the year-long commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Great London Fire of 1666 is peaking this weekend, today actually, with a contained conflagration: a 400-foot wooden replica of the seventeenth-century city will go up in flames on the Thames at 8:30 pm tonight. This is only one spectacular event amidst many creative ventures  organized by the arts production company Artichoke, which seeks to”transform people’s lives and change the world through extraordinary art” along with other institutional purveyors. The Artichoke events include illuminations, projections, lectures, interactive performances, pub crawls, a “fire food market” and “fire garden”, all offered under the umbrella of “London’s Burning”, while London’s more traditional institutions are offering a variety of thematic exhibitions and displays. It’s a very complete commemoration, befitting a transformative event in London’s–and Britain’s–history.

Fire of London St Pauls

Fire of London model Flames projected onto the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the symbol of post-Fire London. Photograph: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images;  the David Best-designed wooden model to be set on fire tonight @artichoketrust.

Fire has played such a huge role in London’s history–not only in the seventeenth century, but also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when another Great Fire of 1834 leveled much of Westminster and the Blitz destroyed much of the central City. The commemoration of tragedy in general, and fires in particular, must necessarily focus on loss and devastation but also on rebuilding–and how the process of rebuilding reflects on the particular society that is engaged in it. I think an incandescent commemoration of 1666 is appropriate because it will illuminate the loss at least as much as the rebuilding–which has always been the focus in remembrance of this particular Great Fire: Wren’s London. We don’t even know how many people died over those three burning days: we have precise knowledge of property damage but a woeful lack of comprehension about the human toll. When the Fire burnt itself out late in the day on September 5 it had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and left up to 200,000 people homeless, but how many people?  Who knows: anywhere from hundreds to thousands (doubtless including anonymous souls who had survived the preceding plague year), yet we still seem to repeat the ridiculous number of only six verified deaths. Then as now, it seems that we can only begin to process the enormity of destruction in a visual and structural way.

Griffier I, Jan, c.1645-1718; The Great Fire of London, 1666

Fire of London print BM Griffier

Fire of London print BM after Griffier2 BM

The paintings of Dutch artist Jan Griffier I (c. 1645-1718), who came to London just after the Great Fire, seem to be particularly influential depictions: his view of the burning of Ludgate (Museum of London Collection) was reproduced in scores of prints over the next century and a half (Trustees of the British Museum).


Pokémon and Public History

Public history is about engaging the public with the past and its public memory, often through places, so you would think that an augmented reality game that drives people to historical sites would be welcomed by museum professionals and heritage site managers. Their reaction to Pokémon Go, however, has been decidedly mixed.While park sites seem to embrace the game and its players, several museums and sacred sites have just said no to Pokémon Go. In Washington, D.C., the United States Holocaust Museum opted out after a photograph of a poisonous-gas-emitting Pokémon named Koffing in the museum elicited quite a response online. The museum’s communications director, Andrew Hollinger, issued a statement that “Playing Pokémon Go in a memorial dedicated to the victims of Nazism is extremely inappropriate. We are attempting to have the Museum removed from the game”. Likewise, Arlington National Cemetery tweeted the following statement on July 12: We do not consider playing “Pokemon Go” to be appropriate decorum on the grounds of ANC. We ask all visitors to refrain from such activity. Many cemeteries across the country have followed suit, but several museums have invited visitors to “catch ’em all” within their walls. I think that art museums can embrace Pokémon Go as perfomance art that brings in much-needed millenials, but history sites have a different mission and response, especially those charged with commemorating tragedy.

Pokemon PEM

Pokemon character 5Pokémon popping out in the vicinity of the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem Maritime National Historic Site Visitors Center downtown–I have no idea what their names are: they just appear and I “throw” balls at them and take their pictures. They’re everywhere–even in my backyard and office!

So that brings me to Salem, a real hotbed of Pokémon Go activity from the release, and especially last weekend when an event called SalemGo! Catch ‘Em All! PokéWalk organized by the always-inspired folks at Creative Salem brought hundreds of Pokémon players to downtown. With its compact urban streetscape and multitude of historic markers, sites, and museums (real and “experiential”), Salem is a perfect setting for Pokemon, so I followed these enthusiastic hunter-gatherers to see how they engaged with all of the above. To be honest, I didn’t see a lot of engagement: most people proceeded with eyes fixed on their phones from Pokésite to Pokésite, barely passing a glance at the actual building/ monument/ installation/entity. However, I did not see any historically-insensitive trespassing (even though both the Old Burying Point and the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial are Pokésites, as well as the Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street) and it was fun to see so many backpack-bearing players out there, on the streets of Salem: in teams, in pairs, entire families, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, grandfathers and granddaughters.

Pokemon Team

Pokemon Team 2

Pokemon Pair 2

Pokemon Pair

Pokemon Pair 4

Pokemon quartet

I soon realized I couldn’t make an evaluation of the impact of Pokémon Go on heritage sites during this event–it was a Pokéwalk not a Pokéstroll. I’d have to go out on my own and see just how the hunt for these virtual creatures could impact connections to both place and the past. So that’s what I did, as early in the morning as possible. I didn’t come to any great conclusions, but here are my thoughts, descending from nitpicky and Salem-specific to a bit more substantive and general.

  1. It’s Salem COMMON, not Commons!
  2. So happy that the Witch Museum is NOT a Pokéstop; but unfortunately the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Gallows Hill Museum/Theater and 13 Ghosts or whatever it is called are.
  3. BUT super excited that the ACTUAL site of the Salem Gaol is a Pokéstop (and not just the Witch Dungeon Museum–which appropriated the plaque of the actual site).
  4. Where oh where is the United States Lightship Museum? I thought it was on Nantucket, but Pokémon Go tells me it is a PokéGym here in Salem.
  5. I spoke to several Park Service rangers, all of whom told me they were excited to see hundreds of visitors on Derby Wharf. Pokémon Go could well be a boon to all of our National Parks, in this their centennial year.
  6. A Pokéstop is just that, a stop. But wild Pokémon can appear anywhere, at any time, and lure you anywhere. Strange creatures tried to lure me into both the Witch Trials Memorial and the Old Burying Point, but I resisted.
  7. So many churches and monuments!  You can definitely tell that Pokémon Go is based on the Historical Marker database, which includes sites both conventional and a bit more obscure–driving people to the latter, even if they’re not spending much time there–has got to be a benefit. Awareness is always a benefit.

That’s about it: I don’t really have any particularly penetrating insights into this phenomena, as you see. I would love to hear from some heritage professionals–particularly those who manage sites that are a bit more….sensitive. I must say that while I don’t particularly care about catching Pokémon in the context of the game, I love capturing them on my camera. There’s something about the juxtaposition of obviously unreal things in real settings that is quite captivating: I expect to see notice of some big exhibition soon! In the meantime, here are my own offerings, starting with the creature at the Witch Trials Memorial.A surreal site indeed: I really don’t want to see similar creatures getting any closer to those benches.

Pokemon character 4 WTM

More Pokémon in less sensitive settings below. There are a whole bunch on Federal Street, particularly in the vicinity of the Peirce-Nichols House., so heads up. ….

Pokemon character 8

Pokemon character 7

Pokemon character 9

Pokemon character 10

Pokemon character 11

This guy appeared in my office at Salem State, also a hotbed of activity.

Pokemon office 2


The Politics of Remembrance

Remembrance–the ongoing public process of acknowledging the importance of past people and events, is inherently political (as we know all too well here in the “Witch City”) but it strikes me that Civil War remembrance and reconciliation is particularly problematical. This point was brought home this past weekend when I read a provocative and powerful editorial in the New York Times entitled “Misplaced Honor”.  In the piece, author Jamie Malanowski calls for the renaming of the ten or more U.S. Army bases that are named for Confederate generals, men who led soldiers who fought and killed United States Army soldiers; indeed, who may have killed such soldiers themselves. Malanowski acknowledges the historical reason for the names of these bases– most of which were built between the world wars when the need for national unity was paramount–but asserts that we cannot let these names stand now, when African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable; the thought that today we ask any American soldier to serve at a base named for someone who killed United States Army troops is beyond absurd. Would we have a Fort Rommel? A Camp Cornwallis?

Apparently there is even a consensus among Civil War historians that several of these namesakes (like Braxton Bragg of Fort Bragg) were bad generals. When I visited the official sites of bases names for Confederates–Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Ford Benning–there was nothing to be found about these generals, except bland statements that they were local. And that really is the crux of it. The only substantive rejoinder to Malanowski’s argument that I could find (here) so far argues that local communities should have sway in the naming, or renaming, of public places in their midst. Hopefully, at the very least, this conversation can continue.

Politics of Remembrance 1

Politics of Remembrance 2

Portraits of Confederate generals, including Henry L. Benning, namesake of Ft. Benning in Georgia, lower center, Illustrated History of the Confederacy, 1899 & the 41st Engineers building a bridge at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, 1942, Arthur Rothstein, photographer, Library of Congress.


%d bloggers like this: