Tag Archives: Research

Where are all the Quince Trees?

I am encountering so many references to quinces in my early modern recipe books and regimens: to eat, to preserve, in tarts and jellies and marmalade, of course. These English people really loved quinces, or they depended on them, and so they brought them to New England, where every garden apparently had a quince tree or bush; apparently only one was needed because they were so fruitful. There was even a moment in time when quinces were considered as a possible staple crop here in Salem: according to Felt’s Annals of Salem, there was a succession of crop failures which led to scarcity of corn in the 1760s, provoking a public inquiry “whether some foreign vegetables might not be introduced, which would serve as a substitute for bread”. The “quince of Portugal” was proposed, along with the “Spanish potato” (did they not know that the potato was a native North American crop?). This is a good clue, confirmed by some of the English evidence: apparently the English variety of quince was not so pleasing as the Mediterranean variety, thus it needed a lot of cooking, steaming, boiling, roasting and sugaring: just perfect for what the English liked to do to all sorts of foods. According to Thomas Moffatt in Health’s Improvement (1655), quinces were worth the trouble: though their raw flesh be as hard as raw beef unto weak stomachs, yet being roasted, or baked, or made into Marmalade, or cunningly preserved, they give a wholesome and good nourishment.” This was fine for the seventeenth century, but in the nineteenth century I think people wanted to just pick a piece of fruit off the tree and eat it, and consequently Robert Manning, Salem’s superstar horticulturist (and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle) just gives a few paragraphs to quince trees in his New England Book of Fruits and seems more interested in grafting his beloved pears onto them to create dwarf varieties. As quince also served as a type of pre-modern gelatin the development of alternative sources and processes in the nineteenth century were factors that must have aided its gradual disappearance as well. By the later nineteenth century, there were only to be found in “grandmothers’ gardens” and now—nowhere.

Quince San Diego

Quince Fuchs

Quince Cakes

quince newenglandbookof00mannrich_0070 1847

Quince Bush Arthur Wesley Down 1895 MFAQuince, Cabbage, Melon & Cucumbers, by Juan Sanchez Cotan, 1602, San Diego Museum of Art; a Quince tree in Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants), 1542the eighteenth-century recipe book of the Marchioness of Wentworth and a recipe for “Quince Cakes”;  “Quince stock when grafted or budded with a Pear”, Robert Manning’s New England Book of Fruits, 1847; Arthur Wesley Dow, “Our Quince Bush”, 1895, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Well, except for the Bonnefont Herb Garden at the Cloisters (below) and there are a few quince boosters out there so maybe we will see a revival. Since they are small trees, they are perfect for urban courtyard gardens like mine, so I’m looking for a space…..and speaking of small urban gardens, for those of you in Salem (or nearby), the creator of one of the most impressive gardens in Salem (which you can see here) is giving a talk this Thursday night in the atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum. No doubt her garden is illustrative of her knowledge, which means we will all learn a lot!

Quince Cloisters

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Gardening event

 


Sugar and Sage in the 17th Century

I’m working on three projects during my sabbatical this semester, but the one that has (re-)captured my attention, and to which I have devoted the most time so far, is an old study of the more utilitarian features of the long English Renaissance, including agriculture, medicine, home-keeping, construction (rather than architecture), engineering, navigation and other individual and collective “industrious pursuits”. Food and drink are at the intersection of several of these pursuits, so I’ve spent several weeks researching not so much what early modern people ate and drank but rather what they were supposed to eat and drink according to contemporary “authorities”. This is far more interesting than the basis of my other industrious pursuits, which is of course math. Eventually I must get into math but right now I’m enjoying reading about food. There are many opinions in the early modern regimens organized around the Galenic concept of the non-naturals, external and environmental factors which affect health: air, food & drink, rest & exercise, sleep & waking, excretions & repletions, and “affections of the mind”, but in this post I’m going to focus primarily–but not exclusively– on the advice of a physician-entomologist named Thomas Moffat, which was published posthumously as Healths Improvement: or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing all sorts of Food used in this Nation in 1655, with “corrections and enlargements” made by Dr. Christopher Bennet. Moffatt wrote the original manuscript around 1595, and he segregated diet from all the other non-naturals in a manner that is more modern than early modern: it is an orderly and due course observed in the use of bodily nourishments, for the preservation, recovery, or continuance of the health of mankind. 

Food Moffett

Even though he was a practicing physician and an avid entomologist, Moffatt’s diet advice is more ancient Greek/biblical than empirical, though he does make the interesting distinction between “full, moderate, and thin” diets, which increase, repair, and lessen flesh, spirits and vapors in the body respectively. Most adults should follow moderate diets in alliance with their designated humoral complexion or temperament, representing the particular combination of humors (blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile) with their attendant qualities, or degrees (hot, cold, moist, dry). Everything and every substance has humors, not just bodies, so foods should be chosen to preserve health according to the rule that like is sustained by the like, or restore health by employing foods with contrary degrees. That’s all pretty standard for this time, but Moffat explores food to a greater degree than many of his contemporaries:  its taste and distaste, its preparation, when to eat it—and when (and how) to kill it if it is a beast. All beasts are fair game, both domestic and wild (even hedgehogs) and all parts of all beasts (believe me). A few expressions of vegetarianism will emerge over the course of the seventeenth century, but Moffatt’s treatise is not among them. Nearly every food is good for someone at sometime, but the when must be considered along with the what, as for example, seemingly-harmless butter, which is best at break∣fast, tolerable in the beginning of dinner; but at supper no way good, because it hinders sleep, and sendeth up unpleasant vapours to annoy the brain, according to the old Proverb, Butter is Gold in the morning, Silver at noon, and Lead at night. It is also best for children whilst they are growing, and for old men when they are declining; but very unwholesome betwixt those two ages….a veritable lifetime of no butter! Thankfully, Moffatt seems to be the only one proffering this advice; most regimen writers assert that butter is just fine, especially when salted and mixed with honey and/or sugar, the universal panacea of the early modern era (for those who could afford it).

Food Sugar Nova Reperta 1600 FolgerMaking miraculous sugar in Nova Reperta (New Inventions of Modern Times), engraved by Jan Collaert I, after Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus, and published by Philips Galle, 1600.

Sweeteners make everything better—water, wine, butter–not just better-tasting, but better, according to all opinions: “Sugar agrees with all ages and all complexions”, wrote Thomas Cogan in his Haven for Health (1584). Water should be avoided at all costs, unless it was pure rain water or mixed with sugar or honey; ale, beer and wine were much preferred, especially “Rhenish” (white) wine. Writing several decades before Cogan, Philip Moore summarized his diet advice according to ease of digestion and engendering of “good juice” in his Hope of Health: partridges, pheasants, chickens, capons, hens, small birds, newly-laid eggs, rare or poached, young pork, veal, new milk, fresh fish from gravelly and stony rivers…bread made of the flour of good wheat, being well-leavened, sufficiently salted and well baked in an oven, being two or three days old. And also pure wine. Even though “meate” is often used to refer to all food, it’s not difficult to glean that meat (or flesh) was key to a healthy diet, and chicken and mutton were generally preferred, “boiled and eaten with opening (fresh) cordial herbs”, a beefed-up version of the pottage most people probably were eating.

Food November

Food Trevelyon Miscellany 2Two calendar illustrations from Thomas Trevilian’s marvelous Miscellany, 1608: Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.b. 232 (formerly Folger MS 450517).

There is still a reticence about fruits and vegetables among seventeenth-century regimen writers, particularly the former, although that is changing: a terrible famine in the 1590s inspired a major reconsideration. William Vaughan, in his Approved Directions for Health, both Natural and Artificial (1600), asserts that fruits are eaten more for wantoness than for any nutritive or necessary good”, but he praises many vegetables, and gives us a recipe for the very best “sallet” made of pennyroyal, parsley, lettuce and endive, which “opens the obstruction of the liver and keeps the head in good plight”. Moffatt is more open to fruit, but like most of his contemporaries, he warns against the raw state: all apples are worst raw, and best baked and preserved (with rosewater, honey and/or sugar, of course). But by all means avoid “melomachia, the ‘apple-fight”; [as] cruel fluxes surprised the Army upon this, and many died of intolerable gripings. It seems as if most fruits are acceptable if they are baked, roasted, or “cunningly preserved”, with sugar, and taken with wine: figs, in particular, draw much commentary as a wholesome fruit, but only if consumed in the right way. According to Moffatt, figs are dangerous without wine, but wholesome with it. Vegetables can be nourishing as well, but only if you pick the “whitest and tendrest-leafed” and steep and cook them for quite some time. In addition to the application of fire, the accompaniment of wine, and sweeteners, garden herbs and spices, both “homebred” and imported or “outlandish”, can change the nature of everything, particularly sage, the versatile herb of salvation from time immemorial. Moffatt (and Bennett) leave sage to the herbalists, an indication of the increasing specialization of medical texts in the seventeenth century, but Vaughan gives us a “wholesome diet drink” for everyone, made of a variety of the most useful domestic herbs, processed in seventeenth-century style.

Stoneware jug 17th century with Vaughan Diet Drink


Considerations on Color

I teach what is commonly known as the “Scientific Revolution” in several of my courses, and I always endeavor to expose my students to the broad range of the “new science” in the seventeenth century as they tend to have a very narrow view of what this revolution entailed. We come to the topic from very different perspectives: for them, it’s all about the heliocentric universe (conception, proof, acceptance? I’m not sure which); for me, it’s about nothing less than a new conception of truth and a new methodology of inquiry. To demonstrate its truly revolutionary impact, I stress the universality of this methodology by exposing them to the range and variety of “ingenious pursuits”, encompassing everything from botany to medicine to chemistry to mechanics to navigation and from the theoretical to the practical. I’m a bit more interested in the latter–and that’s what I’m studying during this sabbatical–but sometimes it’s hard to separate the two approaches: a case in point is Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colourswhich was first published in 1664. Boyle is primarily known for his pioneering work in chemistry and physics, but his interests were varied: like his contemporary Isaac Newton, he also experimented with alchemy. As its title indicates, Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours consists of experiments and observations which “enquire seriously into the Nature of Colours, and assist in the investigation of it [them]”, and his empirical data consists of examples of craftsmen creating color, including the English dyers who had perfected the process of transforming a red acid extracted from the American cochineal insect into scarlet and crimson dyes: and voilà, Redcoats! (Well a bit later). It is these intersections of “science”, industry and art that really demonstrate the spirit of inquiry in the seventeenth century.

COnsiderations of Color

Wright, John Michael, 1617-1694; Mary Fairfax, Duchess of BuckinghamFirst edition of the Experiments and Considerations Touching Colour, 1664, Skinner Auctions; The Duchess of Buckingham with her crimson wrap, after 1659, York Museums Trust.

Just two years later, Robert Waller, another fellow of the Royal Society (which we should remember was very interested in technology as well as theoretical science) published a really cool color chart in the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. As you can read below, Waller had seen a “table of simple colors” some years previous but was resolved to “give a more philosophical and useful one by the addition of some mixt colors”. The vocabulary is similar to that of medicines–simple and compound–and like materia medica, everything was composed from nature but man was starting to amplify the process of production—or creation.

Creating Colors Waller 2

Creating Color Waller

Color Chart 1686Robert Weller, Tabula colorum physiologica (Table of Physiological Colors), Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1666.

And then there is the remarkable Dutch manuscript brought to (internet) light by the book historian Erik Kwakkel a few years ago containing a “proto-Pantone” code of colors: the Treatise on Colors for Water Painting (1692) by A. Boogert. A single and singular copy forgotten and full of the most amazing colors and color compositions, this book set the design world on fire back in 2014—understandably so.

color-guide-960x731

Color Chart 1690sA. Boogert, Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau, Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque municipale/Bibliothèque Méjanes, MS 1389 (1228). Photographs by Erik Kwakkel.


Centering History

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

Local History

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

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

Local History Andover Market

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

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

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

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

Finding & Sharing Local History workshopMay 31.

The Massachusetts History Conference:  June 4.

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


The G.A.R. is Gone

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

G.A.R. Salem

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

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

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

G.A.R. Boston 1927 3

G.A.R. collage

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


Salem Women’s Lives in the Phillips Library

As they are now, Salem women were really, really busy in the near and more-distant past, and the records in the Phillips Library are a testament to both the range and intensity of their activities. At this moment, the PEM is highlighting all of the powerful women whose work and lives are featured in their 2018 slate of exhibitions, including Georgia O’Keeffe, artist and facilitator Angela Washco, photographer Sally Mann, and a succession of Qing Dynasty empresses of China. In her post, Lydia Gordon writes about “multiple feminisms” and observes that to operate in feminist modes is not just advocating for women’s issues, but rather to take on the human issues within social, cultural, economic and political arenas of our lives. To be a feminist is to be human. I couldn’t agree more, and while it is wonderful to have all these exhibitions on view here in Salem, once again I am struck by the burying of the local past by an institution which is focused primarily on the more global present. For the collections of the PEM’s Phillips Library are full of women tak[ing]on the human issues within [the] social, cultural, economic, and political arenas of [their] lives, and I’m afraid we’re never going to hear their stories–or see their faces.

Woman Pierce PEMThe lovely Catherine Johnson Pierce, who we do get to see in Salem: anonymous American artist, c. 1828-29, Peabody Essex Museum.

So many activist “Republican Mothers” in nineteenth-century Salem! Here’s just a sampling of women’s association papers in the Phillips Library: the Salem Female Charitable Society Records (1801-2001; MSS 359—still active today!), the Dorcas Society of Salem (1811-1875; MSS 113), The Seamen’s Widow and Orphan Association (1833-1960; Acc. 2011.008); the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Records, 1834-1866; MSS 34—fortunately digitized by the Congregational Library and Archives), the Salem Female Employment Society (1861-1875; MSS 113) and the Salem Thought and Work Club (1891-1974), headed by the famed author and activist Kate Tannatt Woods, who deserves her own archive. In her 1977 article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, then-curator Anne Farnam outlined the workings of the Salem Female Charitable Society early in the nineteenth century, and also reads between the lines to illustrate what can be gleaned from the more opaque entries, such as the vote of the SFCS on September 2, 1801 from the first published list of subscribers of the society. Mrs. West was in the process of a bitter divorce, and one would like to have heard that discussion. As the century progresses, Salem women’s organizations continue to serve as charity stewards, and widen their social scope to include abolition, temperance, education and immigration.

Women PEM SFCS

WOMEN PEM collage A published sermon for the Salem Female Charitable Society, 1815; and records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society as digitized by the Congregational Library & Archives.

And then there are so many stories of individual women in the Phillips: far too many to include an exhaustive list here. One could: follow a Salem sea captain’s wife along as she accompanies her husband around the world in 1837-38 (Log 405), reconstruct several long-distance marriages by delving into the correspondence between captain’s wives who stayed in Salem and their roving husbands, perceive how several Salem women, from different stations in life, assessed the world around them and their own lives during short and long stretches of time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through their diaries; appreciate the contributions of the extraordinary women of the Remond family (MSS 271), assess the interesting lives and careers of the “Misses Williams” of Salem, two spinster sisters who made, taught, collected and sold art in Salem, and traveled to Italy and elsewhere recording their observations and purchasing items for resale back in their Salem studio/gallery (MSS 253); read cookbooks annotated with notes and suggested variations (MSS 483); examine the unsuccessful restoration of the Qing Dynasty in China from the perspective of three missionaries present at the time (MSS 0.650), learn so much more about the lives and work of so many accomplished Salem women, including Sophia and Rose Hawthorne (MSS 69), educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (MSS 474), author, illustrator and educator Lydia Very (MSS 83), authors Kate Tannatt Woods and Mary Harrod Northend (Fam. Mss 1119 and MSS 0.016) and artist and entrepreneur Sarah Symonds (MSS 0.016).

Women PEM Collage 3

Photograph of Waters family members, undated, MSS 92 Volume 4

Women PEM Williams Sisters Studio

Women PEM Very

 

Women PEM Woods

Cookbook

Synchronicity Sarah Symonds

Studies of the intersection of maritime and gender histories have been trending for some time–but where do the rich collections of the Phillips Library fit in? Women of the Waters Family–all dressed up and ready to go where? (Phillips MH 12); The Studio of the Misses Williams of Salem (Phillips Library photograph from Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s “The Misses Williams in Salem and Rome: Women Making and Marketing Art and Antiquities.” In The Art of the Deal: Dealers and the Art Market on Both Sides of the Atlantic, 18601940, ed. Lynn Catterson, 59-8 (2017)An illustration by Lydia Very, who bequeathed her Federal Street house to the Essex Institute (MSS 83); Kate Tannatt Woods, Out and About (1882); What Salem Dames Coked, the cookbook published by the Esther C. Mack (another amazing woman) Industrial School in 1910, 1920, and 1933 and reprinted by Applewood Books; The “Colonial Studio” of Sarah Symonds on Brown Street, in a building now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.

As I think about these Salem women on this particular day, in the midst of this particular Women’s History Month, I am dismayed and disheartened when I should be inspired. The sources for women’s history in the Phillips Library are so rich that I have no doubt that they will be discovered and dispersed by a succession of scholars, as many have already (and the digitized catalog and finding aids will facilitate that process), but the prospects for public presentation and engagement seem bleak. As the Phillips collections take up residence in an inaccessible factory, with no obvious digitization plan in place or apparent institutional interest in historical interpretation, it is difficult to see how the people of Salem—or visitors to our “historic city”– will be able to face its history in any meaningful way, like the little girl below.

CurryPhotoTwo-year-old Parker Curry facing Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald: a photograph taken by museum visitor Ben Hines which went viral last week, Washington Post.


A Thin Veneer of Heritage

Six weeks into the struggle to convince the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum to return its Phillips Library to Salem, I find myself with lost faith and many learned lessons. The phrase “broken trust” has been applied to the PEM’s actions many times over these past weeks, but that is too legal a concept for me: I prefer to think in terms of faith, encouraged by Victor Hugo’s lovely observation that A library implies an act of faith which generations, still in darkness hid, sign in their night in witness of the dawn. Under the guise of preservation and with a consistent disdain for accessibility and accountability, the PEM leadership broke faith with the community of Salem, and now I have lost faith in them. I’m trying to separate the leadership from everyone else who works at this large Museum, in effect the Museum itself from the policy regarding the Library and its collections, but that’s tough to do when such an all-encompassing feeling as faith is in play. Working on it.

PEM East India Room collageThe interior of the East India Marine Hall past and present, and before the installation of the PEM’s newest exhibition, Play Time.

I’ve learned many lessons over these past weeks but I think the most important one is about prejudging in general and my own prejudices in particular. I’ve been concerned about the commodification of history in Salem for quite some time (as regular readers are all too aware!) and assumed that this trend was driven exclusively by the many tour guides in town, who were presumably more concerned with #tourismmatters than heritage. Now I know that that predisposition is largely incorrect, as I have seen and heard tour guides take earnest and public stances in support of the return of the Phillips while established heritage institutions have stood silently on the sidelines, taking no position and choosing not to exercise their more considerable influence. I remain impressed, and heartened, by the power of history to unite a broad spectrum of people, although at the same time I realize that history, or the perception of one’s history, is also intensely personal.

Essex Institute 1980

Phillips RizviThe Collections of the Essex Institute in the Phillips Library Reading Room, 1980, and the library collections reinstalled, 2008, Rizvi Architects.

I’ve been having difficulty separating the personal from the professional in my reaction to the PEM’s policy towards the Phillips ever since the “announcement” was made—actually I don’t even think I can get past the “announcement”, or lack thereof! But I better try, because obviously no apologies will be forthcoming; instead PEM CEO Dan Monroe offered only the assertion that there was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand in last week’s Boston Globe article. I certainly wasn’t expecting a consultation, but an announcement might have been nice, especially as the PEM’s last official word on the Phillips was that it would be returning to Salem in……..2013.

Thank goodness, when confronted with such adversity, healthy instincts of self-preservation begin to take over, and so I’ve started to privilege the professional over the personal in my considerations. When I look at the situation from the former perspective it is clear to me that I don’t need the Phillips Library in Salem or even in Rowley. I have a car, a Ph.D., and a flexible schedule so I can probably gain access to the new warehouse library during one of the 12 hours a week or so that it will be open (well maybe not, after my running commentary over these past weeks) if I want to. In any case, I’m an English historian, fortunate to be equipped with academic databases and dependant on repositories that have made the accessibility of their collections a priority. Local history is just a lark for me, right?  Unfortunately, private priorities only work for a while: when I start thinking about all those records relating to Salem people, places and institutions, and all those Salem donors, I find myself right back in the realm of public history.

Actually, I do have three presentations coming up this year on the intersection of the Colonial Revival and historic preservation movements here in Salem—all of which were scheduled just before the temporary Phillips facility closed down on September 1, ostensibly so that materials could be readied for the big move to Rowley (which was not, of course, announced at that time). I was looking forward to using the library’s collections intensively for the first time in my career, an opportunity that will sadly not come to pass. I’ll have to make do, and I will make do, with the help of other institutions that have made their materials more accessible and lots of secondary sources, but I fear I will only be scratching the surface of this Salem story without the Phillips sources.

Colonial Stairway Wallis 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis Stairs 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis 1887

Colonial Seating collage

Colonial Tables Wallis 1887

Colonial Doorway Salem Wallis 1887

Colonial Gates Wallis 1887And I really fear I’ll be too reliant on the detailed-yet-romantic work of Maine-born architect Frank E. Wallis, whose reverence for Salem is all too apparent! Plates from Frank E. Wallis, Old Colonial Architecture and Furniture. Boston: George H. Polley & Co. Publishers, 1887. 


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