Tag Archives: public history

Pirates were Pirates

So I’ve been preoccupied with pirates for about a week, ever since the new Real Pirates Museum opened up in Salem adjacent to Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street. My preoccupation was fostered by initial outrage at the apparent pirate takeover of this relatively new park dedicated to a prominent abolitionist and educator: colorful murals of the pirates within rise about the very minimalist park in a manner which I found dissonant and even offensive. I saw red: this was another Samantha statue moment for me. It wasn’t just the murals: the Real Pirates sign and entryway is centered on the park and there is obvious intent to integrate the attraction with the park. What could be the rationale? I looked through the meeting minutes of the two boards which were charged with approving the walkway, signage, and murals, the Salem Redevelopment Authority and the Public Art Commission, and found some interesting statements from the project manager for Real Pirates to the latter. He connected piracy and abolitionism (and past and present) through an effusive focus on piratical egalitarianism: “the concept of the murals is to portray the values of maritime history honored in Salem today as represented by the jolly roger, a symbol once condemned by nations that enslaved and exploited human beings and now seen as a symbol of what may have been the most democratic and egalitarian society of its time and by five portraits of historic individuals who sought freedom from the oppression and intolerance of their time.” The Commission approved the murals with one condition: that the pirates be disarmed.

Pirate values? That’s the connection? Motley crews in the Golden Age of Piracy shared the same values as Charlotte Forten in the nineteenth century and even Salem today? This seemed a little over the top and brought me into the realm of the Real Pirates Museum, a place I didn’t really want to go: it’s a private business and who am I to tell them what they should or should not be doing? But still, this is a lot of public projection, literally and metaphorically. I’m very familiar (especially after doing a deep dive over this past week) with the historiography of Atlantic piracy in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which historians like Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and others have emphasized the socio-economic structures which churned up so much piracy and cast pirates themselves as working-class heroes challenging the various hierarchies of the British Empire during its most craven period, when it was armed with the asiento granting monopoly privileges to supply the Spanish Empire with enslaved labor. Pirates were clearly challenging this evil empire, and doing so with diverse and meritorious crews, but pirates were also pirates: practical, opportunistic, violent. Pirates were not roving abolitionists. While it is true that the large crews of Edward Thatch or Thache, the notorious Blackbeard, might have been as much as thirty percent African at one time, it is also true that when he captured the French slaver La Concorde in November of 1717 with 455 enslaved Africans in its hold he returned the vast majority to its deposed captain for transport back to the slave market in Martinque. La Concorde became his flagship briefly, renamed The Queen Anne’s Revenge: slave ships were popular among pirates as their architecture suited piratical purposes perfectly, but liberating human cargoes was not their business. In the words of David Cordingly, “pirates shared the same prejudices as other white men in the Western world. They regarded black slaves as commodities to be bought and sold, and they used them as slaves onboard their ships for the hard and menial jobs: working pumps, going ashore for food and water, washing and cleaning…” (Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, 34). They were also disarmed, just like the Real Pirates mural figures.

Anchor from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, whose wreck was discovered in 1996. The Queen Anne’s Revenge Project is an absolutely wonderful site, where discoveries, treasures, and topics are discussed regularly relative to the ship in particular and piracy in general.

So that brings us, and me, to the Real Pirates Museum in Salem. Real Pirates is the sister museum of the Whydah Pirate Museum on Cape Cod: both are based on the sensational underwater archeological discovery of the wreck of the Whydah, another slaver turned pirate flagship, off the eastern coast of the Cape in 1984 by Barry Clifford. I’ve always heard that the Whydah is the only authenticated pirate shipwreck, but I believe that the Queen Anne’s Revenge has since been authenticated as well? In any case, the Whydah Gally was captured in the Caribbean by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and his crew on her maiden voyage in 1716 and utilized to capture a succession of prizes until she ran aground off Wellfleet in the following year. Bellamy perished along with most of his crew, a young, dashing, democratic Robin Hood who seems to have acquired the most romantic reputation of any Golden Age pirate because of his storied relationship with a Cape girl, Maria/Mary/Mehitable Hallett, who may or may not have existed (If she did exist, she was certainly not named Maria, a very Catholic name in very Protestant Massachusetts). Here is how the project manager of Real Pirates described these two in his submissions to the Salem Public Art Commission, as their murals were going to be, and are, very prominent:

Sam Bellamy, known as the “Robin Hood” of pirates, who had suffered as a common sailor, and was determined to assert his inherent human right to organize with others of similar conviction to form his own nation that would oppose by force other nations that had derived their wealth from the sale of human beings and from the murder and exploitation of the common person.

Maria Hallett, who as a single mother was thrown out of her home, banished from civilization and then accused of being a witch and yet never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation.

Much of these characterizations seem to be made up of whole cloth, and when I read them, I really didn’t want to visit a museum pushing romance over reality: even if “Maria Hallett” existed, or is a composite of several women who existed, how in the world can one know that she never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation (salvation?)? But I’m really upset about the park, so I knew I was going to write more, and if I was going to write more I knew I might end up criticizing the museum because of these over-the-top, thoroughly anachronistic statements of egalitarianism, dignity and love rather than its own exhibits, which is not fair. So off I went to see the Real Pirates. Before I left, I wanted to check the photography policy, so I went to the website, and there I saw something very interesting: I was not headed for merely a pirate experience, but a pirate and witch experience!

This is not the pitch on Cape Cod, I can assure you: this is a special Salem pitch. And obviously this is why there’s so much emphasis on Maria Hallett, who became known as the “Witch of Eastham” over her long legendary career. I quickly became more fixated on this than the “Pirates as Social Justice Warriors” claim, especially as I did not see over-reach in that area in the exhibit’s interpretation. It was disappointing, because my experience there was primarily positive: the staff was friendly and informative, it’s a very well-designed space, there’s a good introduction to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and there are authentic artifacts from the Whydah. When you have Real Pirates and real treasure why feature a fake witch? I think this focus is a mistake, although to its credit, the exhibition does present all the Maria theories rather than the “fact” of her existence. I shook that fictional witch off, because I was enjoying my conversation with one of Real Pirates’ managers, who is a graduate of our MA program at Salem State where she wrote her thesis on pirates! She was full of plans and ideas, for both interpretation within the museum and engagement outside: she seemed to have put more substantive thought into how to feature and honor Charlotte Forten than most people associated with the City of Salem, even though that is not her job. (I still think it’s a stretch, and an uncomfortable one at that, but go for it) And then I got distracted by the nautical instruments displayed, as there’s a whole chapter on them in my book: I thought they were rather boring to write about actually but now I don’t seem to be able to get enough navigational dividers! That’s the key: the authentic objects. Historical authenticity is sadly at a premium in touristy Salem, and the Real Pirates Museum can distinguish itself by keeping it real.

A REAL Anchor.


Pirates Plunder Charlotte Forten Park

What do place names mean? Whenever I’m walking around a town or city I look at the names of streets and spaces and assume that they are clues to the history of said town or city but what if these names mean nothing? What if they are just slapped on there to give an impression, rather than as a form of remembrance—and honor? Taking its cue from our long-serving Mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, Salem’s municipal government sees itself and sells itself as progressive, and loses no opportunity to broadcast that message, often in reference to “history”. Actually, this public relations policy predates Mayor’s Driscoll’s reign: Salem had to become a City of “toleration” to compensate for its famous Witch Hunts and enable those who profit from that tragedy to do so with a clear conscience. It seems to me that the virtue-signaling has been switched on to hyperdrive more recently, however. The Trump era afforded Mayor Driscoll many opportunities to expound upon the lessons of real witch hunts as the Mayor of Salem, a tolerant (and hip, never forget hip) city which nevertheless showcases a statue of a fictional television witch in the midst of its most historic square, Town House Square. Two relatively new Salem parks have been named after prominent African-American residents of Salem, even though their locations bear no relation to their namesakes. To my knowledge, Remond Park, on the outskirts of town far from where that family lived and worked, has been the scene of no commemoration or education apart from a sign bearing incorrect information since its naming a few years ago. The name represents the extent of the City’s commitment to the Remonds’ memory. Charlotte Forten Park, once a muddy vacant lot bordering the South River along Derby Street, was created in 2019 and named for Forten (Grimké), the African-American abolitionist, poet and educator who came to Salem in 1854 to live with the Remonds while receiving her education in the city’s recently-segregated public schools and later Salem Normal School, the founding institution of Salem State University. Forten became Salem’s first African-American teacher upon her graduation, and went on to live an active life of advocacy, instruction, and reflection. Salem residents had a rare moment of enfranchisement in that they were actually able to VOTE on the name of the park upon its completion, and Sarah won by a mile, I think! It was a rather rigged election with only a few choices and I can’t even remember what the other names were, but still, it was a somewhat public process, a rarity for Salem. I will share my guilty secret that I didn’t vote for Charlotte (I think I wrote in Luis Emilio). It’s not that I don’t admire her, or believe that she deserved such recognition: it’s rather that I thought that the finished space, which was more modern concrete than timeless green, did not reflect her interests or her character in design or location. You just have to read a few snippets of Charlotte’s Journals to discern her love for nature, and calmness: she was always ready to engage with the world but she needed respites from it as well. The new park, with its limited green space and its mission to be a happening place with a plaza for programs and performances and built-in percussion features, seemed rather disconnected to Charlotte for me, but the City pledged to pay tribute to her life and legacy with more than a name.

Charlotte Forten Park in Salem, shortly after it opened in 2019 in two pictures from my post from that year and a photograph from the City’s facebook page (tables and chairs; the photographer wasn’t identified, sorry! It’s a great photo: this space always looks nicer at night); An excerpt from Charlotte’s Journal: she loved to walk in Harmony Grove Cemetery, which is very close to the house of Caroline Remond Putnam, with whom Charlotte lived for a while.

There’s been talk of a statue of Charlotte for the park: not sure what the status is of that project. I think that would be great, but as of this weekend, I really don’t see how this space can be crafted into anything evocative of Charlotte, because “her” park has been plundered by PIRATES! Real Pirates. The Real Pirates Museum (as opposed to the New England Pirate Museum, just across Derby Street) has opened up adjacent to the park, with a broad walkway carved out of the park and an entryway into and out of the park. This new business advertises its location as “on Charlotte Forten Park” and paintings of pirates embellish its walls, thus framing the park. Charlotte Forten Park appears to have been transformed into Real Pirates Park. And so I guess the answer to my opening question what do place names mean is “not much” in reference to this poor park, even nothing. Perhaps it could be relocated to a more meaningful space with room for remembrance and reflection: that section of Mack Park across from Harmony Grove Cemetery?

Charlotte Forten Park (or Real Pirates Plaza?): April 10, 2022.


What About Fort Pickering?

I love commemorations: I have posted about them often here, particularly at the beginning of a new year like 2020, during which the long-planned commemorations (of the achievement of women’s suffrage, the Mayflower voyage, and the bicentennial of the state of Maine) didn’t quite go off as planned, obviously. As I spend much of my time thinking about the past, I relish any moment in which a more collective present is so engaged. In four years’ time, Salem is going to be thrust into a big commemorative year, even bigger than 2020 and hopefully more celebratory and reflective: 2026 will mark the 250th Anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution and the 400th anniversary of the first European settlement in Salem. Revolution 250 has been planning the regional observance of the Revolutionary anniversary for quite some time in a collaborative and dynamic manner, because “commemorations bring people together.” I think there is some Salem participation in this effort, but I’m really not sure. I’m even less sure about what is being planned for Salem’s 400th anniversary: when I look at the organizing that has been going on in two other cities facing big anniversaries, Portsmouth and Gloucester, I see much more organization than is in evidence here in Salem, but then again these cities’ 400th anniversaries are next year so they better have their acts together! Salem certainly has time, but from what foundation and inspiration will it proceed? Who is in charge and who is involved? What will “Salem 400” entail and hope to achieve? I google that term from time to time but all I get is this. Without a professional historical society or heritage commission to shepherd such an initiative, there is no doubt that the 400th anniversary of Salem’s founding will be a much more “top-down” initiative than that of its sister cities, or even its own Tercentenary, which inspired a multi-layered calendar of commemorative events and expressions, including a parade of 10,000 participants, pageants and performances, musters and medals, open houses, bonfires, and headlines in national newspapers.

Official Tercentenary Program, 1926: you can see some great photographs of the events here.

I can’t imagine 10,000 people turning out for a Quadricentennial parade in 2026! The past century has transformed history into a product in Salem, something to be exploited rather than contemplated or celebrated. A singular focus on 1692 seems to have deadened the city’s interest in nearly everything else, save for the occasional nod to the military or the marginalized. I’m not sure how anyone can engage in history in Salem, save for nostalgic facebook postings. The few references to plans and goals for 2026 seem to acknowledge this by emphasizing places over people, and the present over the past: foremost among them is Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s “Signature Parks Initiative,” which is “focused on planning and carrying out improvements and preservation work in six of Salem’s busiest and most beloved public parks and open spaces, ensuring that they will remain available and enjoyable for future generations to come: Forest River Park, Palmer Cover Park, Pioneer Village, Salem Common, Salem Willows and Winter Island.” Certainly this initiative is welcome, and will be beneficial to Salem’s residents (as will more trees, also a part of “quadricentennial planning”) but is it commemorative? Is it engaging, inspiring, and challenging the public, as opposed to simply providing for them? Maybe it is for some, or even many, but not for me: I want more history—and more humanity—in my quadricentenary. Compare Mayor Driscoll’s Signature Parks Initiative with the centerpiece of the Gloucester 400 commemoration: the 400 Stories Project, “a citywide undertaking whose goal is to collect, preserve, and share 400 stories of Gloucester and its people” from 1623 until 2023. The Project’s administrators invite Gloucester residents to “help us make history” by sharing their stories. This is a pretty sharp commemorative contrast between these two old Essex County settlements.

“Our People, Our Stories”: I wonder what the tagline of Salem’s Quadricentenary will be?

So far the most conspicuous work of the Signature Park Initiative in Salem has been in evidence at Forest River Park in South Salem: one end of the park now features new public pools and trails along with an enlarged and renovated bathhouse while the other is slated for a dramatic alteration revolving around the exchange of the Colonial Revival reproduction “Pioneer Village” currently situated there with the YMCA camp formerly located at Camp Naumkeag in Salem Willows. The writing has been on the wall for Pioneer Village, built for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1630, for quite some time as the City has neglected its buildings and landscape for decades and expanded the adjacent baseball field more recently. However, the exchange plan has hit a snag recently, as the City had to apply for a waiver of its own demolition delay ordinance before its own Historical Commission in order to remove the buildings at Camp Naumkeag, which was first established as a tuberculosis camp over a century ago. So far this waiver has not been granted, and a notable resistance to both the destruction of Camp Naumkeag and the relocation of Pioneer Village has emerged. I wrote about Pioneer Village at length last summer, and I have been rather ambivalent up until last month, when several admissions shifted me into the wary and possibly-even-opposed zone: I’m still thinking about it as I find it a particularly vexing public history problem! This is an ambitious plan: Pioneer Village is not simply going to be relocated but rebuilt and re-interpreted with the addition of a visitors’ center and a new focus on the relationship between the European settlers and the indigenous population of pre-Salem Naumkeag. This is an admirable goal for sure, but to my ears, the new interpretive plans sound vague, simplistic and ever-shifting, and above all, lacking in context. They are supposedly the work of the numerous consultants who have worked on the project, paid and unpaid and including several people whom I admire, so it might just be a matter of presentation, but there are several statements that I find concerning. In the first Historical Commission hearing, one consultant responded to the argument that Camp Naumkeag was itself an important historical site because of its role in public health history with an assertion that that role would enhance the new Pioneer Village’s focus on the virgin soil epidemic which devastated the indigenous population even before settlement, as if infectious diseases were interchangeable and detached from time and place! [“Pioneer Village Complicated by History,” Salem News, September 16, 2021] Several months later, the City posted its plans on its website, with this all-encompassing but yet incomprehensible statement of goals: increased access and visibility to the breadth of Salem’s history as represented by the breadth of the site’s history, including Salem Sound’s natural history, the original inhabitants, Fort Lee and the Revolutionary War, the Willows, Camp Naumkeag, and the Pioneer Village. So now it seems as if the newly-situated Pioneer Village will be utilized to interpret almost the entirety, or breadth, of Salem’s history, and in a space which the accompanying plan revealed will have parking for only ten cars. In terms of both interpretation and logistics, this is a flawed plan as presented: its reliance on the seasonal trolley for access is confirmation of its orientation to tourists over residents as well as its seasonal status, in contradiction to the breadth of its stated goals and costs.

The current Plan for the new Pioneer Village on Fort Avenue, on the site of the present-day Camp Naumkeag.

While at face value the inclusion of yet another long-neglected Salem historical resource, Fort Lee, looks like a good thing, I find it concerning. Why should Fort Lee be included in the interpretation of the faux Pioneer Village and not its very authentic (and far more important) neighboring fort on Winter Island, Fort Pickering? This is the guiding principle of the the 2003 study commissioned by the City and the Massachusetts Historic Commission, the Fort Lee and Fort Pickering Conditions Assessment, Cultural Resources Survey, and Maintenance and Restoration Plan: that the forts should be “restored, maintained and interpreted together [emphasis mine] as part of the Salem Neck and Winter Island landscape for enhanced public access.” To its credit, the City has begun a phased rehabilitation of Fort Pickering, but I see much less energy and far fewer resources committed to it than to the Pioneer Village project, which is perplexing given its authenticity and historical importance. Winter Island has served successively as a fishing village, a shipbuilding site, and in continuous military capacities from the very beginning of Salem’s settlement by Europeans to the mid-twentieth century.  The storied fortification which became known as Fort Pickering in 1799 was built on the foundation of the British Fort William, part of a massive effort by the new American government to fortify its eastern coastline beginning in 1794 under the direction of French emigré engineer Stephen Rochefontaine. Fort Pickering was manned, and rebuilt, on the occasions of every nineteenth-century conflict, and was especially busy during the Civil War. Another regional Rochefontaine fort, Fort Sewall in Marblehead, shines under the respectful stewardship of that town. Salem is so fortunate to have so much built history:  why can’t we focus our energies and resources on preserving and re-engaging with authentic sites, rather than creating new ones? (And could someone please find our SIX Massachusetts Tercentenary markers? Every other town in Massachusetts seems to have held on to theirs).

Talk about a site that can illustrate the BREADTH of Salem history: Winter Island was an early site for fishing and fish flakes (and even more substantial “warehouse” structures) as well as the location of Salem’s first fort William/Pickering. The Salem Frigate Essex (depicted by Joseph Howard) was built adjacent to the Fort in 1799, and Winter Island also served as the site of Salem’s “Execution Hill” in the later eighteenth and nineteenth century and of a Coast Guard air station from 1935-70. Members of the US Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, or SPARS, were stationed on the island during World War II. Rochefontaine’s 1794 plan and block house sketches and Frank Cousins’ photographs of the island and fort in the 1890s, Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum. Marblehead’s Fort Sewall on the last day of December, 2021.


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.

Virtual Vatican (3)

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.

Bodleian (3)

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!

Henry BL

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.


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