Tag Archives: public history

What I’m Reading this Summer

I haven’t done a reading list in a while and I have really been reading, so it’s time. It’s been a voracious reading summer for me: it’s as if I was emptied out by writing my own book and I need to fill myself up! There are the usual random categories you will be familiar with if you’ve been following me for a while: history, architecture, decorative arts, design, a marked preference for nonfiction over fiction. This summer I seem to be more interested in the public aspects of all these things: public history, urban planning, media. History has become so very contentious in our time, and I feel my deficiencies in American history knowledge very keenly. I’m also troubled by the constant tide of development here in Salem, and looking for new urban ideas, strategies and policies that lend themselves towards unification rather than division. My major collecting focus has always been pottery, but for some reason I’ve become obsessed with fabric this year, not so much as an objection of consumption but of production. And I have read some fiction, though not much. So here’s a working list of what I have read or am planning to read before I go back to school.

History is very, very, very public in general and Texas history in particular: 

Well the top three books are not only public histories but also personal histories, and that makes them very compelling, although a bit uneven in places. Denmark Vesey’s Garden is magisterial (thus I had to amplify or “quadrify”? it); it’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, examining the very complex story of “how slavery has been remembered in Charleston, South Carolina from 1865 to the present” in the words of its married historian authors. I’m finally realizing now, probably long after most American historians, that slavery really has to be examined historically at both the macro and the micro levels to fully grasp both its existence and its impact.

But BIG history is also important and interesting (and very useful for teaching):

I don’t really understand the modern world so I try to read as many books with the subtitle “the making of the modern world” as possible. This is actually a pretty large genre: you would be surprised at just how many books claim that their subjects “made” the modern world, beginning with a study of Genghis Khan. These are this year’s “making” books: I read everything by Linda Colley and my understand of the 18th century is basically based on her interpretation, so I would have read this even without its “making” subtitle, but I certainly would not have picked The Butterfly Effect without its making claim: Melillo makes a pretty good argument for the centrality of insects.

I’m particularly interested in material history this year: just loved these two books—they are big history too.

These histories of fabric are a bit more than the standard commodity global histories that we have seen over the past several decades (oysters, alcohol, drugs) in that they are about production as much as consumption, and like food, fabric is pretty essential.

Two books with Napoleon in the title, which are not necessarily about Napoleon:

Actually the first book is about Napoleon, but more about the painting he stole from a Venetian monastery, Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, which ended up, and still remains at the Louvre. I believe that it is hanging right across from the Mona Lisa, another Italian painting that ended up in Paris. I’m always looking for works at the intersection of art and history, especially stories that involve theft, and Saltzman’s work was perfect. The center figure of Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime, was an art thief, but much more: apparently master (and short) thief Adam Worth was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Moriarty.

Insights into vexing problems:

Besides the changing environment, on which I think I can have minimal impact beyond my personal and household habits, the two pressing issues which concern me the most are deliberate ignorance and disinformation and ugly architecture. Information literacy has become a much more important focus of my teaching over the past few years, but deliberate, willful ignorance and disinformation still confounds me. I’m looking for some historical context with Ovenden’s book, which I haven’t read yet. On a more local level, Salem has been experiencing a building boom over the past few years with the construction of steady stream of really ugly—or even worse, generic—buildings. Despite the fact that nearly everyone I talk to in town is wondering how we are getting all these monstrosities, there seems to be no opportunity for public discourse. Expectations are very low: why don’t we want beauty in our lives? Sometimes critics are labeled busybodies, but I believe that architecture is public, and so I was particularly struck by the title of Timothy Hyde’s book, Ugliness and Judgement. I’m looking for ways to be a more educated and effective critic: Hyde was helpful as was Charles Montgomery’s Happy City.

And finally fiction!

Well, I read Station Eleven because it seemed timely: it’s about a post-pandemic world! And it is a wonderful book, but not for me: I am not a future-dweller. It drove me back to a comfortable period, and some classic works of historical fiction which I never read, never even considered reading before this odd year. Norah Lofts was an amazingly prolific author of historical fiction and mysteries, and the second volume of her “House” trilogy, which follows the history of a Suffolk house and the residents who lived in it from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, is a Tudor-Stuart treat. In the same vein and tradition, Hilda Lewis’s Mortal Malice is more focused on one of the major scandals of the Jacobean era: the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury while a royal prisoner in the Tower of London, a scandal that involved not only poison but also affairs, plots, and Sir Francis Bacon. It even attracted the attention of Nathaniel Hawthorne centuries later. It’s hard to turn this scandal into a bad book, and Lewis does not disappoint.


A Derby House in Medfield

I busted out of Salem yesterday and took a road trip to Norfolk county in Massachusetts, southwest of Boston, and drove through a string of towns beginning with M: Medfield, Millis, Medway, Milford, Mendon. My “destination” was a first-period house with Derby connections in the first M town, the Dwight-Derby House, but really I just wanted to drive around. And I did—but I also found Medfield absolutely charming so I stayed awhile. Sometimes I think I could write the whole blog about and around Salem’s Derby family: their money, connections, and influence end up everywhere. In this case, however, neither their money, connections or influenced really impacted the history of a lovely first-period house overlooking Medfield’s Meetinghouse Pond. John Barton Derby, a grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, who profited immensely from Salem’s emerging East India trade and thereby became America’s first millionaire, did not stay in Medfield for long but his descendants lived in what became known as the DwightDerby House until the middle of the twentieth century.

John Barton Derby, grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, married Mary Townsend, whose family owned the Medfield house, in 1820. Rumors swirl around about John Barton and his brother Hasket, in contrast to the other children of John and Sarah Derby of Salem. The major clues to their outcast status are the facts that they were seldom in Salem and always in need of money. When John Barton married Mary Townsend, his deceased first wife (from Northampton, which is like Derby Siberia) had not been in her grave for very long, and he was apparently disowned by his father. He was practicing law in Dedham, and had been given a letter of introduction to Mary’s father by his uncle Benjamin Pickman, Jr., but that was about it for respectability. John and Mary remained together for about of 27 months and produced two children, Sarah and George Horatio, and then he was gone. I’m going to let Nehemiah Cleaveland and Alpheus Spring Packard, authors of the History of Bowdoin College with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates, from 1806 to 1879, Inclusive (1882) tell the rest of John’s story, but they are leaving out time spent as a recluse in the wilds of New Hampshire and as a patient at what later became known as McLean Hospital, which opened in the year of John Barton’s graduation from Bowdoin.

“JOHN BARTON DERBY, born in 1793, was the eldest son of John Derby, a Salem merchant. In college he was musical, poetical, and wild. He studied law in Northampton, Mass., and settled as a lawyer in Dedham. His first wife was a Miss Barrell of Northampton. After her death he married a daughter of Horatio Townsend. They soon separated. A son by this marriage, Lieut. George Derby of the United States army, became well known as a humorous writer under the signature of ‘John Phoenix.’ For many years before his death Mr. Derby lived in Boston. At one time he held a subordinate office in the custom-house Then he became a familiar object in State Street, gaining a precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares. He was now strictly temperate, and having but little else to do, often found amusement and solace in those rhyming habits which he had formed in earlier and brighter years, His Sundays were religiously spent — so at least he told me — in the composition of hymns The sad life which began so gayly came to a close in 1867.” What a poignant scenario: the grandson of a millionaire, with his “precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares” on the streets of Boston. No wonder the charming sign outside of the Dwight-Derby House features John Barton’s and Mary’s dashing son, George Horatio Derby, who served in the Mexican-American War, went on to a journalistic career in California and died at the young age of 38. You can read much more about the Townsends and the Derbys and the history of the house in a great little book that integrates both very well: Medfield’s Dwight-Derby House. A Story of Love and Persistence by Electa Kane Tritsch.

George Horatio Derby, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

The Dwight-Derby House was purchased by the town of Medfield in 1996, and went through an intensive restoration before it was opened to the public, joining the town’s more famous colonial structure, the Peak House, as a period museum. And there’s lots more in Medfield: some beautiful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century private houses, a small historical society, and a “mobile history tour” using QR code plaques on utility boxes, signs, and murals. I fell in love with the eighteenth-century Clark Tavern, even (or perhaps because of) its state of extravagant decay, and was very relieved to discover that it has just sold and can only be restored to include TWO dwellings (despite being much bigger than the poor Barr house into which many more are being stuffed), or perhaps even to its original use.

I can’t wait to go back to Medfield to see the interior of the Dwight-Derby House, and the renovation of the old Clark Tavern. But there’s lots of history to see and read now at the Peak House (with its revised chronology) and along the town’s streets and sidewalks.


Deviation, Discovery and Donors: my Last Word on the PEM’s Phillips Library

A big week—was there an election?—as the official judgement from the Massachusetts Judicial Court came down regarding the movement of the Phillips Library to a remote Collection Center by the Peabody Essex Museum in response to the latter’s petition for approval to deviate from the geographical restriction in one of its charter documents. Deviation is the legal term, as you can see in the judgement below:

JUDGMENT: “This matter came before the Court, Gaziano, J., on a Complaint pursuant to G.L. Ch. 214, §§ 1 and 10B, filed by the Peabody Essex Museum, (“Plaintiff” or the “Museum”), seeking approval of a deviation from a charitable restriction. The Museum asserts that relocation of the Phillips Library collections to the Museum’s collection center (the “Collection Center”), in Rowley, Massachusetts including materials originally held by the Essex Institute, is consistent with equitable deviation from the terms of the founding statutes establishing the Essex Institute, and is necessary to achieve the charitable purposes of those statutes. The Attorney General, an interested party, has filed her Assent. There are no issues in dispute, and this Court makes the following findings:

Pursuant to G.L. Ch. 214, §§ 1 and 10B and the court’s equity powers, the Court determines that the relocation of the Phillips Library collections to the Collection Center in Rowley, including materials originally held by the Essex Institute, is consistent with equitable deviation from the terms of the founding statutes establishing the Essex Institute (the “Founding Statutes”), and is necessary to achieve the charitable purposes of those statutes, because of the steps the Museum has taken to provide better long-term preservation of the Library collections, to increase Phillips Library storage capacity, and to ensure continued public access to the Phillips Library collections at the Collection Center in Rowley, and because of the commitments that the Museum is making in Salem, as set forth in the Complaint in Equity. Accordingly, it is hereby ORDERED that the Museum is permitted to deviate from the terms of the Founding Statutes by relocating the Phillips Library collections to the Collections Center in Rowley. So ordered.

So the Phillips Library, constituting the primary archive of Salem’s history, is enabled legally to remain in Rowley, thus ending a process and a preoccupation (for me anyway) which began back in 2017 when the PEM announced the move at a meeting of Salem’s Historic Commission. This judgement did not came as a surprise to me: in order to make her recommendation (of assent), Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey convened a meeting of interested parties in the summer of 2019: she heard us out, and attorneys from her office regularly followed up, but I could see the writing on the wall. There was never any official objection by the City of Salem.

Even though I was not surprised by this ruling, it still saddens me. So I took advantage of the long election night as well as the anxious day after to focus on a distractive strategy of trying to isolate the precise reasons why. The Peabody Essex Museum does seem like a very different institution than that which made this move three years ago: much more focused on its community and its foundations. There is a new director, Brian Kennedy, who signaled both his community and historical consciousness by returning the storied anchor which sat in front of East India Marine Hall for a century or so very shortly after his arrival. There is much more Salem stuff on display in the expanded museum, in both permanent galleries and special exhibitions. But still, we are at their mercy, are we not? The PEM decides what to show Salem about its own history, when, and how. The powers of historical discovery, revelation and interpretation are in their hands, not ours. Let me illustrate my point with the words of two Directors: Mr. Kennedy and his predecessor Dan Monroe. The blog post previewing the current exhibition Salem Stories by curator Karina Corrigan opens with a quote by Mr. Kennedy: “Wouldn’t it be great if people could learn more about Salem’s and PEM’s history within our own galleries?” which seems like a very sharp contrast to the sentiments of Mr. Monroe, when asked by the Boston Globe to explain the hastiness of the Phillips Library removal. I can’t resist one last opportunity to showcase these words:

One statement is community-minded, the other not so much, but both express the now-confirmed fact that the Peabody Essex Museum owns Salem’s history: it is not ours, it is theirs, to do with what they want as long as they preserve it—and no one has ever cast doubt on their excellent stewardship, certainly not me. Preservation was always the chief rationale for the removal of the Library from Salem and it remains so: it’s right there in the judgement. But in this case, preservation not only trumps but also precludes access for the community: it is simply going to be difficult for Salem’s residents— students, retirees, just plain old history buffs— to experience the pure joy of making historical discoveries for themselves. Instead, their history will be handed to them, or “packaged” for them. I’m probably over-sentimental on this point: I just love local historical societies and want one for Salem desperately but the Phillips Library is quite a bit more than that. Within its collections, however, there are so many community resources: family papers, record books of all sorts of Salem societies, memorials of little local events which might not catch a professional researcher’s eye but are nonetheless fragments of the fabric of a society long gone. I still don’t understand why a suitable—and much more accessible—site for the “Collection or Collections Center” (both terms are used interchangeably, as in the above judgement) could not have been found in Salem, and that makes me sad, as does the emptiness of the beautifully-preserved buildings of the former Phillips Library on Essex Street.

So that’s one source of my lingering sadness; the other is the issue of donor intent. This is the question that I asked at the well-attended forum in January of 2018 at the PEM after its intent to remove the Library  was finally disclosed. Mr. Monroe waved me off and indicated that all was well on that front, but that is not what I have heard here. Several donors have commented on my Phillips Library posts, and I’ve received emails from others, all indicating that either they or their family members believed that they were contributing to a Salem repository and to Salem history. Such sentiments are also expressed in the Annual Reports of the Essex Institute over the years, and even when they are not expressed explicitly, you can infer the intent. For example, look at these large memorial funds from 1966:

Eleanor Hassam, who you can read more about here, came from a very wealthy Boston family, but had deep Salem roots and made bequests with clear geographical and institutional purpose: the Essex Institute received “a handsome and varied bequest” from Miss Hassam, including a legacy of $10,000, many personal and family items, and one-half interest in the the residue of her estate in 1941. The Annual Report from that year announced the bequest with reference to the keen interest in local history and genealogy of both Miss Hassam and her father. Miss Jenny Brooks, a Salem embroidery entrepreneur, established a memorial fund for her father Henry Mason Brooks with the generous sum of $40,000 in 1899: Mr. Brooks served as Secretary of the Essex Institute and was a prolific local historian and author of the Olden Time series. Another generous Salem daughter, Anna Pingree Wheatland Phillips, established an endowment in memorial to her father, Stephen Goodhue Wheatland, who served as Mayor of Salem during the Civil War. Ira Vaughan was a successful Salem inventor, manufacturer, and salesman of tanning machinery. Robert S. Rantoul, esteemed lawyer, politician, and officer of the Essex Institute, was memorialized as a “great student of Salem history” in his 1922 Boston Daily Globe obituary, and by his children with an endowment. Thomas Franklin Hunt was the author of the popular Visitors Guide to Salem and Pocket Guide to Salem issued by the Institute, and yet another prolific local historian. Like many of these memorialized men, Francis Henry Lee (I assume there is a typo in the above report) was actively engaged in Salem institutions and the collection and recording of his own Salem experience: his papers in the Phillips Library are among the most valuable sources of the city’s nineteenth-century history. I can’t speak for the dead, but both the donors and the namesakes of these endowments were all focused intently on Salem with an apparent pride of place, and I can’t imagine they would be pleased with this “equitable” deviation. I’m sorry we couldn’t bring the Phillips Library home for them, and for everyone who is interested in the history of this heritage-stripped city.

One of the PEM Collection Masks from the PEM’s shop, based on a fan donated by Eleanor Hassam; unfortunately it is sold out, as is one featuring the “Witch over Salem”. 


Witch City: the Film and the Moment

It seems ridiculous, but when I moved to Salem I remember being surprised at the extent of Halloween hoopla and kitsch in the city: it seemed really tacky to me but not particularly concerning. It was the early 1990s, I was still in graduate school, and frankly more wrapped up in the literature and discussion surrounding the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing than the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials. I was also much more familiar with the European witch trials, an extended crisis by which over 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so the Salem trials seemed like a much smaller event to me: in terms of size, extent, impact. I had visited Trier and Bamberg at the center of the witch-trial-storm in Germany, where hundreds had been executed for the “exceptional crime” in the 1580s and the 1620s: neither had transformed themselves in Witch Cities; I had spent considerable time in Essex, the county which was the most impacted by the less-intense English witch trials: no Witch Cities to be found there either. So I was surprised by Salem, even though I grew up only an hour away and had visited the Salem Witch “Museum” on a school trip (when I swear I saw the same “performance” that is playing there now). I suspect I was so bewitched by the architecture that I looked the other way!

18th century Witch Trial relief sculpture in Düsseldorf: Horst Ossinger dpa/lnw 

After several years in residence, I lost my naiveté and came to realize just how insidious witchcraft tourism was in Salem and how powerful were its purveyors. Halloween just got bigger and longer, as the city’s identity, as well as the experience of residential life, were fused with a holiday that had a very tenuous connection to the 1692 trials, whose victims were not witches. One of the effects–an unintended consequence, I’m sure– of the 1992 commemoration was to provide a rationale for the continued commercial exploitation of the trials, under the label of toleration: Salem has risen above its moment of extreme intolerance so it is perfectly ok for us to profit from it! We are not profiting we are educating! This message facilitated the Halloween steamroller perfectly and kept it rolling; it is still rolling. Salem’s children are not in schools during this pandemic, but tourists fill our streets: priorities. So obviously, I’m not a fan, but even more so than the exploitative nature of Salem’s Halloween I am bothered (and actually a little bewildered) by the lack of any public dialogue about it. There is simply no procedural opportunity for any person—resident, victim descendant, whomever—to say Hey this is wrong, or even ask to tone it down. The city puts out a questionnaire to Salem residents after every Halloween season, but all the questions are about logistics (traffic, parking, carnival): it is either assumed that everyone buys into the hellish Halloween, or the city government just doesn’t care what its residents think about it. When I look back over my long residence in Salem, I think there were only two eventful opportunities to discuss the way the city was selling itself: a brief moment prior to the placement of the Bewitched statue in Town House Square in the Spring of 2005, and the first screening of the documentary Witch City in the Spring of 1997. The more recent opportunity was extremely limited, as the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) moved fairly quickly to grant permission for the statue’s placement in Salem’s most historic square in time for TV Land, its sponsor, to reap the benefits of cross-promotional advertising for the film Bewitched in June of 2005. The city of Salem was unmoved by the fact that the statue of a fictional witch would stand in close proximity to the location at which the very real victims of 1692 were condemned as witches or the appeals of those victims’ descendants in 2005, and it remains so. There was controversy over Samantha in 2005, but I remember more controversy about the debut of Witch City in 1997, but that might be just because I had a more invested view.

City of Salem advertising in the 1990s: a still from the 1997 documentary Witch City. City of Salem advertising today.

Whew! That was a long preamble to the central topic of this post: the documentary itself, and its Salem debut, prompted by its recent availability (for the first time) hereWitch City is a fast-moving, often-funny, always spot-on documentary about Salem’s escalating Halloween in the 1990s, a place and a time when “American history encounters American capitalism” (I think the latter won). It was made by several local filmmakers, Joe Cultrera, Henry Ferrini, Philip Lamy, Bob Quinn and John Stanton, and in classic documentary fashion it lets most of the participants speak for themselves: Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel at Tercentenary events, the- then Mayor of Salem, Neil Harrington, the “official witch of Salem”, Laurie Cabot, and the owner of the Salem Witch “Museum”, Bif Michaud, among others. Mr. Michaud, of Marblehead, made an unfortunate and perplexing comment equating the Witch Trials and the Holocaust (you’ll have to hear it for yourself) in the film which leaked out, causing considerable discussion in town and the Peabody Essex Museum to cancel the Salem premiere so not to offend its neighbor. Somehow, my colleague Tad Baker and I came up with the idea that our Department might sponsor the premiere: we were new to Salem State, untenured and unconnected, but we had the encouragement and support of our senior colleague John Fox, who had worked with Joe Cultrera on an earlier film, Leather Soul. And so that’s what happened: the History Department sponsored the Salem premiere of Witch City at Hamilton Hall of all places: I remember the tech people laying wires all day long in the Hall but I can’t recall why we didn’t have it at the university! The show was sold out, the Hall was packed, and we had a great panel featuring Tad and Danvers Archivist Richard Trask, now both acknowledged as THE authorities on the Trials. There was lively discussion, and I remember thinking: we can talk about this, we will talk about this when it was over. Witch City went on to be screened at the Immaculate Conception church and eventually on our local PBS station, WGBH, but unfortunately the Hamilton Hall premiere was not the beginning of a sustained public dialogue about Halloween in Salem, but rather just one brief shining moment.

Boston Globe piece on the premiere by Anne Driscoll, a Salem Award winner 20 years later.

You can rent, stream, or download Witch City here.


If We Can’t Picture Them, Were They There?

We don’t have any portraits of Salem women before the eighteenth century: the (European) women of Salem’s (European) founding century are therefore difficult to picture. We are left with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century romanticized and idealized images of dramatic women: persecuted Quakers, the two Annes, Hutchinson and Bradstreet (who never lived in Salem), and above all, the women who were accused of witchcraft. The latter are always represented by illustrations from long after their deaths, or by images of English or continental witch trials, utilized even on the covers of scholarly books on the 1692 trials. Why am I always seeing the Pendle “witches” from 1612 depicted as the Salem “witches” from 80 years later and across the Atlantic?

Picturing Pendle Collage

Because “public-facing” history, presented in digital formats and disseminated through social media, needs pictures: texts just won’t do! And book covers need to draw the reader in. I’m as guilty as the next blogger of using the later nineteenth-century images (of which there are so many!) to illustrate some of my posts, although I never substitute depictions of one event for another. I’d love to have some contemporary illustrations of Salem women in the seventeenth century doing all the things I know they did: parent, cook, sew, garden, make all sorts of stuff, keep taverns, worship, wonder. But there aren’t any. I’d love to have a portrait of Lady Deborah Moody, who settled briefly in Salem before she moved on to New York and was labeled a “dangerous woman” by John Winthrop for her heretical Anabaptist views (and I think her independence), but there aren’t any—I’ve checked through all the English sources as well. I’d love to have an image of the adversaries Martha Rowlandson, who divorced her husband for impotence in 1651, and Eleanor Hollingsworth (mother of Mary English, who I’d also like to see), who operated her own tavern, brewed her own beer, and cleared her husband’s considerable debts. But nothing. There are several portraits of seventeenth-century Massachusetts women, so I guess they need to stand in for their Salem sisters: anything to avoid disseminating those simplistic “Puritan” images!

Women Pictured

Puritan WomanReal 17th Century Massachusetts Women and a “Puritan Woman, 17th Century” from Cassel’s Historical Scrap Book, c. 1880.

As an English historian, I have a wide range of texts and images available to me with which to explore seventeenth-century women: many portraits of wealthy ladies, prescriptive writing, prints and broadsides, recipe books and diaries, theatrical performances as social comment and criticism (with women as the focus quite a bit in the earlier seventeenth century). So English women seem more diverse, more interesting, more active, more layered, while their sisters across the Atlantic seem a bit…..one-dimensional in comparison. I guess that’s why the authors of books on the Salem Witch Trials pinch English images so often. Of course if we move away from the reliance on the visual we can learn a lot more, but I worry that the exclusive reliance on “picture history” in the public sphere erases those who do not leave an image behind.

Virtuous Women

I think I can illustrate my concern a bit better by examining some women from the nineteenth century, certainly a much more visual age, but not universally so. There’s been a lot of interest in Salem’s African-American history over the past few years, which is of course great. Two women in particular, have claimed the spotlight: Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837– 1914)  and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894). Both were incredible women: Charlotte came north from Philadelphia to live among the always-hospitable Remond family to attend Salem’s desegregated schools in the 1850s, and went on to graduate from Salem Normal School (now Salem State University, where I teach) and become Salem’s first African-American teacher in the public schools, while Sarah grew up in Salem in the midst of a very activist Abolitionist family and became a much- heralded advocate herself, before emigrating to first England and then Italy for her undergraduate and medical degrees. Charlotte remained in her teaching position for only a couple of years before returning to her native Philadelphia and then launching an amazing career of advocacy herself, in the forms of teaching, writing, and public speaking. Both women were illustrious, and completely deserving of the two Salem parks which now bear their name. But I can’t help thinking about another African-American woman, Clarissa Lawrence, who spent her entire life in Salem, running her own school for girls, founding the country’s first anti-slavery society for African-American women as well as a benevolent society, with only a brief trip to Philadelphia for a national Abolitionist convention in which she gave the riveting “We Meet the Monster Prejudice” speech. Where is Clarissa’s park or statue in Salem? Why is Charlotte, whose family is from Philadelphia, the feature of Destination Salem’s Ancestry Days, which seeks to serve as “a gathering point for descendants of Salem’s families as well as a research opportunity for people who want to learn more about their family history”? Her family history is not here! (well actually, none of Salem’s history is here). I suspect the answer to these questions is in good part based on the fact that we have no picture of Clarissa Lawrence, so it’s almost as if she didn’t exist.

Clarissa (2)

Clarissa 2

Ancestry-DaysCharlotte Forten between the two Salem Nathaniels, Hawthorne and Bowditch on the Ancestry Days poster. This sounds like a great genealogy event, but none of Charlotte’s family records are held by the participating institutions: why not feature Sarah Parker Remond, whose are? We even have several photographs of Sarah!


Corona Courses: My Top Ten Sources of Digital Content

So I have just finished converting my lecture courses into online formats: difficult to do midstream. A well-designed online course is a beautiful thing, but if a course is based on a more personal form of delivery and has to become virtual overnight there are going to be challenges. Fortunately, I teach history, and not a discipline that requires a lab or a studio: I can’t imagine what those professors are going through! And I also feel very fortunate to be able to depend on a variety of institutions—libraries and museums—which have made so much of their collections accessible AND provided road maps and guides to these same texts and images in the form of interpretive essays, questions for consideration, and extra-special digital features. I’ve had digital content in my courses for the last decade or so, but again, a course based on all-digital content is another thing entirely. I could not have accomplished such a thing—in such a short time— a decade or so ago; I can now, thanks to the diligent and creative efforts of these institutions, which take the “education” and “engagement” directives in their missions seriously. So here’s my top 10 list, with one qualifier and one comment: 1) I teach medieval and early modern European history and world history, so this is not going to be a US-centric list; and; 2) these institutions are focused on general education, not just formal education: they have made their collections accessible to those who have more casual or independent interests as well as those working within a curricular framework. (oh, and this list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive).

1. The Newberry Library, Chicago: For an American library, the Newberry has very rich European collections and it has created online exhibitions and curated primary source sets that I find invaluable for my courses: its librarians and fellows are very attuned to key curricular and historiographical trends. The Newberry is also a leader in American history and culture in general and local history in particular: it just won the top prize for “Oustanding Public History Project” at the National Council on Public History’s virtual conference for  “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots”. Digital Newberry offers about a million high-resolution texts and images: this is a small fraction of the library’s collection but still quite a lot to see.

De_Bry_Indi_Hispanis_plt_20 Theodor de Bry’s famous 1594 engraving showing Amerindians pouring molten gold into the mouths of Spaniards driven by insatiable lust for the stuff.

2. The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: is a timeline which pairs works of art from all eras and regions of the world with curatorial essays. You can search by region, by period, or by theme, and there are many thematic essays to explore: one leads to another and before you know it, hours have gone by. I teach with images, so this is the first place to I go to find perfect visuals for my presentations, but I also encourage my students to explore this resource themselves. And they do.

Dissolute HouseholdJan Steen, The Dissolute Household, 1663-64.

3. Speaking of timelines, check out the British Museum’s History Connected: A Museum of the World, in which objects can be explored across time and place while visualizing connections, the essential links of world history, and listening to curators share their expertise and perspectives. This is the result of a partnership between the Museum and Google: Google Arts and Culture can provide a engaging platform for a cultural institution to broaden their reach in more ways than one, but there needs to be some intent in terms of design and curation. Some institutions just share images of their objects and leave it at that (I’m looking at you, Peabody Essex Museum: 323 objects; 2 stories, but what BIG story is being told? And could we possibly have some more Salem objects?): this is parking, not driving engagement.

BM HST (2)It’s all about connections at the British Museum (above) and the Rijksmuseum (below).

4. Another exemplary Google partner is the Rijksmuseum: which offers up 164,511 objects, 11 stories, and 8 museum views, taking us right into the building. We can “walk” around the galleries, focus on particular paintings, examine them in “street” or catalog views, organize them in chronological order, discover connections to other works. The collection is so comprehensive (though again, only a fraction of the museum’s 8 million objects), and the connections go on and on, in all sorts of directions.

5. This semester I really need to get my students into the Vatican, as I’m teaching the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that particular place is a powerful connecting link between the two eras and movements: while a succession of Renaissance popes reveled in its creation and majesty, Martin Luther was repulsed by it. The Vatican Museums‘ website features 360-degree tours of many rooms and a more virtual experience with headsets, but just getting us into those spaces will be fine.

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6. Anniversary Digital Exhibitions: Both private and university research libraries characteristically observe historical anniversaries by putting together digital exhibitions of images and texts. 2017 was the anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation, so there were many such exhibitions which are now archived: two of my favorites are Cambridge University Library’s Remembering the Reformation and the University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s After 500 Years: the Protestant Reformation. This year, digital exhibitions on the anniversary of Woman suffrage abound: see my previous round-up here.

7. Digital Bodleian: 914,832 images and counting at the digital portal of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, through which you can do your own curation and share “collections” with students (or friends!). A very diverse and visual database, including some great ephemera, which I also love to teach with: I’ve got to cover both the “old imperialism” and the New in my European and World History courses, and I think some educational ephemera will illustrate the transition.

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8. The British Library, of course, because it has everything. I like the smaller, more curated collections, the “Turning the Pages” feature for complete texts, and when I am teaching medieval history (not this semester), the digitized illuminated manuscripts collection is indispensable. This is my favorite image of Henry VIII: from another anniversary exhibition and his own personal psalter: in the bedroom!

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9. Harvard Digital Collections, of course, because they have everything: 6 million objects assembled from all of Harvard’s libraries, which you can search through with purpose or browse through an array of diverse topic collections. Because Salem is so source-challenged, I’ve come to rely on the Colonial North America collection quite a bit for this blog, but I use several of the other collections regularly for teaching. Then I just jump in from time to time: another rabbit hole: tread with caution!

10. IDEA: Isabella D’Este Archive at the University of North Carolina: I wanted to include one specialized site which demonstrates the full potential of what digital learning can encompass, and this is it. IDEA is an open-access digital “environment” dedicated to the life and letters of Isabella D’Este, the marchesa of Mantua (1490-1539). Isabella was by no means a “representative” Renaissance woman, but she left a blazing multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary trail, which is explored here in creative ways, including a wonderful, truly virtual, replication of her personal studioloI love to go here/there, and I bet you will too.

Цифровая репродукция находится в иThe incomparable Isabella D’Este and a site worthy of her.


Salem Needs a Concord Museum

This past Sunday was a sparkling sunny day with newly-fallen snow, and as I was in a Little Women frame of mind, I decided to drive over to Concord to see all of its historic sites, starting with the Orchard House, of course. I’ve seen everything before but I go back again and again, seeing new things every time I return, and then there is also shopping and major architectural envy-touring in this old town, which is rich in more ways than one! Everyone seemed to be out walking or cross-country skiing, so I had the sites to myself, but for some reason I spent the most time in the one that actually had the least to offer: the Concord Museum. Don’t get me wrong: the Concord Museum is a great institution (see glowing commentary below) but it is in transition right now, and has very few rooms open. It’s a museum that has always been dedicated to the interpretation of all of Concord’s history in a professional and educational manner, and as such they are in the midst of restructuring their exhibitions—new/old spaces will open up over this year and next month they will have the new Paul Revere exhibition on view: Paul Revere: Beyond Midnight.

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20200119_132630Just some of the charms of Concord, Massachusetts: the Alcott Orchard House, the Old Manse, Hawthorne’s Wayside, the Emerson House, and the Concord Museum. (Every time I see Hawthorne’s Concord House, it reinforces how much he disliked his native city, as it is the most un-Salem house I’ve ever seen!)

Despite the obvious differences between the suburban, wealthy enclave of Concord, and the more densely-settled and diverse city of Salem, the two old settlements are similar in terms of their heritage resources: both played important roles in the American Revolution, both had very vibrant reform movements and intellectual milieus in the nineteenth century, both claim Hawthorne, both were key influences in the Colonial Revival movement of the twentieth century. Because of their perceived importance in American history, both have a landscape of heritage sites and important collections, and a federal acknowledgement of such in the form of a National Historic Site/Park. But two developments shaped Salem’s role as a “historical” city that differentiated it from that of Concord: 1) the comprehensive commodification of the Witch Trials and their tenuous connection to Halloween; and 2) the demise of the Essex Institute, which was Salem’s “Concord Museum”.

Historic massachusetts (3)The emphasis is on HOMES and MANSIONS for Concord and Salem on Ernest Chase Dudley’s 1964 map of Historic Massachusetts, Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library. No Witches (but Witch City of course).

I’ve written about Salem’s embrace of the profit potential of the Witch Trials time and time again so I’m not going to repeat myself: it remains an absolute mystery to me why everyone involved in this industry does not realize—much less acknowledge—that they are trading in tragedy and how a horrible statue of television witch situated in our major major historical and political square mocks the victims of 1692 in perpetuity. But that’s just me, apparently. So let’s move on. At some point, the heritage-focused citizens of Concord realized that they had too many institutions, too many attractions, too many stories: there was a need for a gateway to their town’s history. Salem had always had its gateway: the Essex Institute, which had collected, interpreted, and disseminated its history—all of its history—for more than a century. Concord did not have an Essex Institute, so it needed to develop the Concord Museum, which has served, and flourished, as the gateway to the Concord of the Revolution, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and more. When the Peabody Essex Museum absorbed the Essex Institute in the early 1990s, Salem ceased to have an institution which introduced and interpreted its cumulative history—and oriented its many visitors—in a comprehensive and professional manner. Salem is a historic “Gateway City”, but it has no historic Gateway. This has been clear to me for a while, but it became crystal clear when I was in the midst of the few new galleries that Concord Museum did have open the other day, most especially its introductory exhibition entitled Concord: at the Center of Revolution. “Revolution” is used in a broader sense here, not simply as a reference to the American Revolution but also to the “social and intellectual revolution of the mid-1800s” of which Concord was a center, thus leading it to “symbolize devotion to liberty, individualism, equality and democracy.” And because the emphasis here is on interpretation and representation, only a few objects from the Museum’s collections were chosen to introduce visitors to Concord’s history: an ancient spearhead, a revolutionary powder horn, a looking glass that belonged to an enslaved man who fought in the Revolution, the copper tea kettle that Louisa May Alcott used when she nursed the Civil War wounded, and more. These objects were carefully chosen—curated—and I immediately thought who does that in Salem? Where does that happen in Salem? What 7 or 8 or 9 objects could represent all of Salem’s history, and where would we find them?

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The Museum’s gateway role extends beyond its walls: it features Concord itineraries and self-guided tours and has a formal educational partnership with the Lowell and Lawrence school systems, bringing students to its galleries and new Rasmussen Education Center through the “Paul Revere’s Ride” fund. With its recent expansion, it has expanded its interpretation to include Native American history, women’s history, and African-American history. The mission, the mandate, and the message seem to be very clear: Concord’s history is more than that of Minutemen. Certainly Salem’s history is more, much more, than that of “witches”, but the many voices repeating that message are drowned out by crowd.

20200119_121235And yes, Concord has maintained its Tercentenary markers.


Witches are Sexier than Quakers

I would really love to buy the toleration rationale that is used almost universally to justify Salem’s exploitation of the 1692 Witch Trials for commercial gain, but I have several issues. The argument goes like this:  yes, we had a terrible tragedy here in 1692, but now we owe it to civilization to spread awareness of the intolerance of that community in order to raise awareness of intolerance in our own time. If we can make money at the same time, so be it, but it’s really all about teaching tolerance. I’ve written about this before, several times, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but I think this rationale reinforces a notion among some—actually many—that the victims of 1692 were doing something that was in some way aberrant or diverse, when in fact they were just plain old pious Protestants like their neighbors and accusers. The focus on toleration is supposed to connect the past to the present, but more than anything, it privileges the present over the past. My other problem with the toleration rationale is the exclusivity of its application: only to the Witch Trials, the intolerant episode with the most income-generating potential. We seldom hear of any other moments of intense intolerance in Salem’s history: the fining, whipping, and banishment of separatists, Baptists and Quakers in the seventeenth century, the anti-Catholicism and nativism of two centuries later. Certainly the Witch Trials were dramatic, but so too was the intense persecution in Massachusetts in general and Salem in particular over a slightly longer period, from 1656-1661: just read the title pages of these two incredibly influential texts which documented it.

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Quakers Bishop

Edward Burrough, A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New England, for the Worshiping of God (1661; Christie’s —-the whole text can be found here); George Bishop, New England judged, not by man’s, but the spirit of the Lord: and the sum sealed up of New-England’s persecutions being a brief relation of the sufferings of the people called Quakers in those parts of America from the beginning of the fifth month 1656 (the time of their first arrival at Boston from England) to the later end of the tenth month, 1660 (1661; Doyle’s—the whole text is here).

The whipping, scourging, ear-cutting, hand-burning, tongue-boring, fining, imprisonment, starvation, banishment, execution, and attempted sale into slavery of Massachusetts Quakers by the colonial authorities is documented in almost-journalistic style by Edward Burrough and George Bishop and the former’s audience with a newly-restored King Charles II in 1661 resulted in a royal cease and desist missive carried straight to Governor Endicott by Salem’s own Samuel Shattuck, exiled Quaker and father of the Samuel Shattuck who would testify against Bridget Bishop in 1692. So yes, the Quakers accused the Puritans of intolerance far ahead of anyone else, and their detailed testimony offers many opportunities to explore an emerging conception of toleration in historical perspective: we don’t have to judge because they do. Every once in a while, an historical or genealogical initiative sheds some light on Salem’s Quakers—indeed, the Quaker Burying Ground on Essex Street was adorned by a lovely sign this very summer by the City, capping off some important restoration work on some of the stones—but their story is not the official/public/commercial Salem story: that’s all about “witches”.

Quaker Meeting House

Quaker Meeting House 1832

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Quakers Grave

Much of Salem’s Quaker history is still around us: the Essex Institute reconstructed the first Quaker Meeting House in 1865 and it is still on the grounds of the PEM’s Essex Street campus (Boston Public Library photograph via Digital Commonwealth);  the c. 1832 meeting house formerly at the corner of Warren and South Pine Streets, Frank Cousins photograph from the Phillips Library Collection at Digital Commonwealth; the c. 1847 meeting house–now a dentist’s office overlooking the Friends’ Cemetery on upper Essex Street; Samuel Shattuck’s grave in the Charter Street Cemetery, Frank Cousins, c. 1890s, Phillips Library Collection at Digital Commonwealth.

Quakers can’t compete with “witches”, any more than factory workers, soldiers, inventors, poets, suffragists, educators, or statesmen or -women can: they’re just not sexy enough for a city whose “history” is primarily for sale. There was a time when I thought we could get the Bewitched statue out of Town House Square, but no more: it will certainly not be replaced by a Salem equivalent of the Boston memorial to Mary Dyer, one of the Boston Quaker “Martyrs”. The placement of a fictional television character in such a central place—just across from Salem’s original meeting house–and not, say, a memorial to Provided Southwick, whose parents were banished to Long Island, dying there in “privation and misery”, whose brother was whipped from town to town, and who would have been sold into slavery (along with another brother) near this same square if not for several tolerant Salem ship captains*, is a bit unbearable, but that’s Witch City. Apparently grass just won’t grow in this little sad space, so soon we will see the installation of artificial turf , which strikes me as completely appropriate.

Quakers Genealogy

Quakers Whittier

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“The Attempted Sale into Slavery of Daniel and Provided Southwick, son [children] of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick, by Governor Endicott and his Minions, for being Quakers”, from the Genealogy of the descendants of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick of Salem, Mass. : the original emigrants, and the ancestors of the families who have since borne his name (1881); *John Greenleaf Whittier tells Provided’s tale under Cassandra’s (more romantic?) name, and adds the “tolerant ship captains”: we only know that the sale did not go through. The Mary Dyer Memorial in front of the statehouse, Boston, Massachusetts.

Appendix: There was a very public attempt to place a memorial statue to the Quaker persecution in Salem by millionaire Fred. C. Ayer, a Southwick descendant, in the early twentieth century which you can read about here and here: the Salem City Council (or Board of Aldermen, as it was then called) objected to the representation of Governor Endicott as a tiger devouring the Quakers, so the proposed installation on Salem Common was denied. If the aldermen had read Burrough’s and Bishop’s accounts,  I bet they would have been a bit more approving.


Salem Sensory Overload

An amazing weekend in Salem, for the city, objectively and collectively, and for me, personally. I’m writing at the end of a long day, which will be yesterday, during which I gave a morning presentation on the Remond Family of Salem, an African-American family who operated many successful businesses in the mid-nineteenth century while simultaneously supporting every social justice cause it was possible to support (which were many) next door at Hamilton Hall, and then made my way to the long-heralded opening of the new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum. Both were really important events for me: I’ve been focused on the Remonds since I moved next door to Hamilton Hall, and in attendance at my talk was George Ford from California, a Remond descendant who is so dedicated to his family’s story and memory that he just want to be where they were. And except for a few professional events I had to attend at the Peabody Essex, I have not visited the museum since December of 2017, when the non-announcement was made that its Phillips Library, encompassing the majority of Salem’s written history, would be removed to a new Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Over time I realized that I was only hurting myself, as the Peabody Essex is indeed a treasure house, and the historical references of new Director Brian Kennedy and media reviews of the new wing and the #newpem infused me with hope, and so I was excited to return, but also a bit anxious. (There was also a big food truck festival in Salem but don’t expect me to report on that!)

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 The Remonds in the morning, and the new PEM Wing in the afternoon!

As exasperated as I can often get with Salem, you must know that it is an entirely engaging city and place to live, always, but this weekend was particularly intense. If the famous PEM neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher had affixed monitoring devices to me I would have given her readings off the charts, I am sure! I was nervous about going into an institution which I have been so critical of over these past few years–not to exaggerate my influence, it was just an internal feeling. I have friends and acquaintances who work at the museum and it never felt good to criticize the place where they worked. Everything seems different now, with the new Director, Brian Kennedy, acknowledging Salem, community, founders, even slavery (i.e. historical realities rather than cultural idealizations, and potential engagement or even interest in historical interpretation!) with every passing press report. Expectations can make you anxious too though, and I was anxious to see what role the new dedicated Phillips Library gallery in the new wing would play, as an expression of priorities, as an indication of respect for the old (dry) texts which always require a bit more effort to make them shine. So here I go into the PEM, heading straight for the new wing, with all of my anxieties and expectations. What do I see first?

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A wall! And an amazing N.C. Wyeth mural titled Peace, Commerce, Prosperity–both of which I loved. Before I looked at anything, I was struck by that wall: the side of the East India Marine Hall which I had never really seen; it must have been alongside the former Japanese garden but I never noticed it for some reason. Maybe I was just focused in my mind on the back wall of Hamilton Hall which borders my own garden, which I stare at all the time and think of the Remonds working on the other side, but all I could see when I entered the new wing was this wall. It might also have been my admiration for the Georgian Pickman House, which formerly stood in the same spot I was standing in—-maybe I was trying to conjure up its orientation—but for whatever reason, I stood staring at that wall for quite some time. (Yes, Salem’s history is weighing on me, just a bit). Then I snapped out of it, spent some time looking at the lovely Wyeth mural, and moved into the new Maritime gallery, where I was caught. There’s no other word for it, caught. I was transfixed by everything, and as soon as I got to the trio of paintings of ships in various stages of “tragedy and loss” by the Salem deaf-mute artist George Ropes, I realized that I wanted–or needed– to come back to this very intimate gallery every day, or as often as possible. Such a clever installation with its angled walls, ensuring that you discover something new around every corner, and everything so very evocative of the perils and promise of the sea. And such a thoughtful mix of old exhibits and new, including the venerable glass-encased ships’ models we can see in all the old photographs of the Peabody Museum. I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures before, but also “old friends”. There were texts, not just paintings and objects. Stunning, substantive, respectful: I was very impressed.

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20190929_150342-1The treasures of the new Maritime Gallery: the George Ropes paintings are STUNNING; I can’t possibly capture their beauty here. Lovely to see many East India Marine Co. artifacts plus texts and sketchbooks; Ange-Joseph Antoine Roux, Ship America at Marseille, 1806; a reverse glass painting by Carolus Cornelius Weytz, c. 1870; Ship Models and dashing Salem Sea Captains John Carnes and Benjamin Carpenter by William Verstille; Vases by  Pierre Louis Dagoty, c. 1817.

The Asian Export Gallery on the second floor of the new wing was extremely well-designed as well, with an entrance “foyer” covered entirely in c. 1800 Chinese wallpaper from a Scottish castle showing us just how cherished, and integrated, products from Asia were in the west. This opened up into a spacious gallery, providing a vista for what can only be called a “Great Wall of China”! This space was delightful aesthetically, but it was also a teacher’s toolbox for me: all of our introductory history courses are focused on global connections and trade, so I was able to photograph about three PowerPoint’s worth of photographs, for which I am very grateful. Then it was upstairs to the new wing’s third floor, where Fashion and Design reigned—particularly the former, so many mannequins. I have to say that compared to the other two galleries, this one left me cold, but I’m sure that I’m in a minority as it was the most crowded space of my afternoon. We all respond to different materials in different ways of course, but I was struck by the contrast of the rather “old-fashioned” display of Iris Apfel’s ensembles with the modernity of the actual clothing: draped sheets à la eighteenth century with bespectacled mannequins in front? To me it looked inartful, kind of like a throwaway installation, but maybe I’m supposed to notice the juxtaposition? I’m not sure: there were just too many mannequins—it was a crowd for me. There was a readily apparent flow, or connection, between the objects in the Maritime and Asian Export galleries below, but here I could not link the fashion and non-fashion items into any semblance of a story. But again: it was crowded, so I’ll have to go back and try again.

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20190929_154325-1Perfect place to text, no? LOVED this painting of Two English Boys in Asian Clothing, c. 1780 by Tilly Kettle, “the first prominent British artist to work extensively in India”; the “Great Wall” in its partial entirety and detail; the Fashion and Design gallery on the third floor of the new wing.

By this time, I was running out of time (chiefly because I spent so much time in Maritime World) but I wanted to see how some older spaces were impacted by the addition of the new wing—namely the adjacent East India Marine Hall—as well as the heralded dedicated Phillips Library gallery. Here disappointment began to kick in, so read no further if you want a fluffy, disengaged appraisal: that’s not what I do here. The old hall, so stunning and so missed by me, was all dark, reduced to background for artist Charles Sandison’s digital projections of words and phrases from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ship captains’ logs. I had seen this before, as PEM’s first “FreePort” installation a decade or so ago, so I was surprised to see it again. I really liked it before: it was definitely immersive. It was not what I wanted to see now; I was hungry for real words and texts after their authentic integration in the Maritime gallery and so these fleeting, ephemeral images felt fleeting and ephemeral. But this is a temporary installation so I’m not going to go on and on about it; I’m looking forward to what’s next for East India Marine Hall.

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20190929_152822Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0.

On to the new Phillips Library dedicated gallery space! I was anxious, so maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but it actually took quite a while to find it. My very handy Visitor Map, which was handed out to everyone as we entered the PEM, indicated that it was right behind East India Marine Hall on the same floor, but because the circular staircase in the rear of the building was blocked off you couldn’t quite get there from where I was without going up, down and all around for some reason. Again, it might have been me, I was going by sheer sensation here, but the difficulty of access seemed to combine with the closet-like room I eventually found to give me a profound impression that the Peabody Essex Museum really didn’t want to showcase the collections of the Phillips Library. Here was an afterthought, thrown in behind the restrooms. I hate to rain on this parade, but that is what I felt. The “Creative Legacy of Hawthorne” exhibit seemed uninspired to me as well, but to be honest, I couldn’t really take it in, I was so disappointed by this sad space. I’ll have to go back and look at it again, if I can muster the willpower. I know that the new Phillips Librarian is happy to have this space, and I’m sure he and his staff will do as much with it as they possibly can, but there’s no way that I can say that it was anything other than a great disappointment to me, right now. The contrast between this disposable space, and all of the wonderful, powerful, thoughtful and spacious galleries I had just seen was almost unbearable: I just had to walk away. There was a large panel which gave a brief history and description of the Library and an introduction to its new reading room in Rowley which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera so I made a collage of different sections: there was no filter with tears, “broken” and “recoil” didn’t look quite right, so I settled for worn.

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Well let’s try to end on a high note, shall we? No one likes a killjoy. The whole opening of the new wing was handled wonderfully by the curators and staff of the PEM: everyone was on hand, all weekend long, to help, and guide, and answer questions. The Visitor Map (and these cute buttons for all of the new galleries, except, of course, for the Phillips Library) is great. There was a wonderful spirit about the place. Not only is the new wing impressive architecturally: it offers some interesting views of Salem from its upper stories. The new garden is a thoughtful space: I’m looking forward to seeing how the plant material fills in. It was good to be back in the Peabody Essex Museum after my long absence. Salem’s mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, shared her reactions to the opening of the new wing on social media and someone forwarded her post to me. She was clearly as excited as the rest of us and why not: it was, again, a big weekend for Salem. Mayor Driscoll wrote that As we enter these doors we’ll know more about 16-year old sea captains who sailed around the globe and brought back treasures and trinkets to their hometown. Humankind is amazing when it comes to rising up to challenges. We tell those accounts, see those treasures, wonder what it was like and how it came about, marvel at the possibilities….we do all that here. In this space. In our city. Yes in our city, in Salem: but we can’t tell those accounts if we don’t have our history: trinkets and treasures are not enough. And we don’t have to wonder, we could actually learn and know, if we had our history, but we don’t: it’s not here, in our city, in Salem.

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20190929_153255The Phillips Library Gallery is #206 on the Visitor Map + adorable buttons; the new garden; view from the third floor of the new wing.


The Forest through the Trees

COURT HOUSES: constant scenes of dramatic Salem history, from the seventeenth century until today. At present, we have one court house being demolished, one recently refurbished in spectacular fashion, and two long sitting vacant, waiting for their redevelopment into something deemed acceptable by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). One of these warehoused courthouses, an amazing Romanesque structure which was built in several phases over the later nineteenth century, has by all accounts an equally amazing interior library with a huge walk-in fireplace: for some reason I have never been able to make it inside but everyone I know who has raves about it. The other looks like a very pure Greek Revival structure, but again, by all accounts, it has been gutted inside. Because the interior of the Romanesque former Superior Court is so beautiful, several of the proposals for its redevelopment want to preserve areas for public space, which is of course great. And while their ideas for public access have merit conceptually, I am begging the SRA to just say no. While “The Museum of Justice of New England” and “a regional children’s museum that is themed around the Parker Brothers historical presence in Salem” (I’m quoting a September 4 article in the Salem News by Dustin Luca) sound like nice ideas with place-based rationales, the last thing Salem needs is another niche “museum”; what Salem needs, of course, is a Salem Museum, and this scenario offers up likely the last opportunity to make that happen.

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img_20190914_150104_773The Superior Court House even has turrets!

Every professional historian, whether working in academic fields or more public positions, along with every well-traveled visitor whom I have squired around Salem, always asks the same question: where is the History Museum? They all notice the commercialism, and the lack of context, and the two are related. We cannot see the forest through the trees. If you have a Salem Witch “Museum” (insert quotes around all the following “museums” please–the first four exist and its only a matter of time before the last surface), and a Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, and a Salem Witch “History” Museum, and a Salem Witch Board Museum, and a Salem Witch Ball Museum, and a Salem Witch Broom Museum, and a Salem Witch Hat Museum, and a Salem Witch Cat Museum, and a Salem Witch Spoon Museum, and a Salem Witch Pin Museum, and a Salem Witch Cauldron Museum, and a Salem Witch Wart Museum, and a Salem Witch Herb Museum, and a Salem Witch Wand Museum then you’re not going to understand anything about the cumulative origins, role and impact of the Salem Witch Trials in context. Likewise, if you go to the Pirate Museum, the Halloween Museum, and the “Lost Museum”, you’re not going to understand anything about Salem’s vast and complex history at all. There are only bits and pieces out there, trees, with Salem’s two professional museums, the House and the Seven Gables and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, attempting to show Salem’s many visitors some semblance of a forest.

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Court House Costello BPLBits and Pieces of seldom-seen Salem history: Salem printer Ezekiel Russell’s July 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Holyoke family coat-of-arms by Salem artist Benjamin Blyth, a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Salem tax collector Joseph Hiller, Nathaniel Bowditch’s presidential badge from the East India Marine Society, c. 1820, the “Gerrymander” in the Salem Gazette, Salem’s bicentennial banner, Nathan Read’s steam engine, and letters from Salem and Alexander Graham Bell; a photograph of Jessie Costello leaving the Superior Court in Salem after having been found innocent of poisoning her firefighter husband in an absolutely sensational trial in 1933, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The few images above represent the tip of an iceberg: I could post thousands of pictures of Salem images, stories, “facts”, and events—in fact, I have: that’s my blog! In each post I try to provide context but there is no context for the whole Salem story, and so everything is lost, except for a few well-worn tales about the Salem Witch Trials, and (thanks to Salem Maritime and the Gables) some of the key aspects of its dynamic maritime trade and the work and life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. All those Salem soldiers, in so many wars, forgotten, along with so many Salem artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and just everyday people, leading their ordinary and extraordinary lives. Could we learn more about legal history and the Parker Brothers? Yes, absolutely, but not in isolation, but rather as part of a larger Salem story. Examples abound, from towns and cities which also draw significant numbers of tourists but seem much more intent on presenting their comprehensive history in an accessible and professional manner. Of course, a comprehensive Salem Museum in this space would have to be a collaborative effort, and it would have an impact on other institutions in the city. All of the court house redevelopment proposals stress the “point of entry” feature of their site, located just across from the train station: the new Salem Museum could also serve as an orientation center, freeing up the Salem Maritime National Historic Site to do their own programming and exhibits at the current Visitors Center on Essex Street.  The new Peabody Essex Museum may be planning historic exhibits in the former Phillips Library buildings, or it may not, but its present and future mission certainly does not include providing the comprehensive and chronological introduction to the Salem story that both our residents and our tourists deserve. There are powerful and influential people in our city who could make this happen, and they should.

pixlr-3A few of my favorite local history museums: the Newport Historical Society Museum, the Concord Museum, and the City of Raleigh Museum in North Carolina. Concord is a perfect role model for Salem: it has a historic national park, and several smaller house museums, but grasped the necessity of establishing a central historical museum for the general public in the 1970s.


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