Tag Archives: Salem Needs a History Museum

The Forest through the Trees

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

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img_20190914_150104_773The Superior Court House even has turrets!

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

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

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

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


Salem during the Great War

I have been so impressed with the World War One centenary commemoration initiatives both in Europe (where they have been going on since 2014) and the United States (more recent initiatives, organized by towns, states, and the national Centennial Commission): poppies and lights galore, a real focus on humanity, and that amazing “We’re Here because We’re Here” living history event, which makes me cry every time I see more than one minute of video—nope, make that 30 seconds. Of course the commemoration has been more intense in Europe because the loss was more intense, but there have been some impressive American initiatives too: in our region, the Lexington Historical Society, in particular, has gone all out. Here in Salem, we have our veteran squares, which is a lovely program, but that’s about it: we have no organization committed to collecting and interpreting local history in its entirety and in context, and I doubt there’s much money to be made from commemorating the Great War. And that’s really too bad, because the history of Salem’s homefront experience during World War I is absolutely fascinating, and worthy of note. It took me about an hour to search for these items: just imagine if someone with more intent–and more time–did so.

By far the most news generated in local papers (besides reports of troop movements) in 1917 and well into 1918 is that concerned with fundraising, including relief initiatives and the Liberty Loan program by which the federal government financed the war. These were community efforts, involving drives, parades, and all sorts of events—and press. The national posters for the Liberty Loan are amazing (so many different themes and approaches, from full-on jingoism to fear to sentimentality) and the local response equally so. The Boy Scouts were deployed in this effort, and the boys of the Salem Fraternity clearly answered the call. The “Community Chest” initiative started just before the war, and during the war 300 American cities raised charitable funds according to set goals: Salem’s goal was $34,000 a month, which I’m not sure it met, but this big “War Chest” appeared on Washington Street so the effort must have been somewhat successful! There were several relief efforts in Salem: the one which seems to have been the most active was the American Fund for Jewish War Sufferers in the various war zones of Europe and Palestine, which raised 20,000,000 over the course of the war. Mrs. Nathan Shribman, the chair of the “Relief Bazaars” through which Salem would raise its share of those funds, is below in June 2017. One really does get the impression of frenzied fundraising during the entire war, even as the flu raged in the fall of 2018.

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World War Boy Scouts

WOrld War I Liberty Loan

World War I Salem 1918 Liberty Loan

Salem WWI Fraternity Liberty Loan

Salem World War I Treasure ChestLiberty Loan posters, 1917-1918, Library of Congress; Lining up to buy Liberty Bonds, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Salem Boy Scouts on Central Street during a Liberty Loan rally, October 1917, US National Archives; the War Chest on Washington Street, SSU Archives and Special Collections.

As we get into later 1917 and 1918, news from the front dominates the headlines of the Boston and Salem papers, but what happens over there always affects the home front. One of my favorite stories involves a film made by all the Salem families of soldiers in France and sent over there through the YMCA. A wonderful community effort—wish I could find it. Then there is the incredibly story of Salem’s own Ralph C. Browne, a self-taught “hitherto unknown Yankee inventor”, whose antenna firing device made possible the North Sea Mine Barrage in the closing phase of the war: local man wins the war!

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World War I 8 Browne November 3 2018Boston Globe clips, 1918.

So many soldiers. Salem has its very own Saving Private Ryan scenario with the Gibney family, who sent four sons to France and were commended for their sacrifice by President Wilson in the Spring of 2018: this was a national story. Both the Salem and the Boston papers covered the war in a very personal way, sharing as many individual stories as possible, so these are just a few Salem soldiers who experienced terrible loss, joyful reunions, and distinguished themselves with great bravery. Meanwhile, back home, Salem’s residents were supporting their efforts in myriad ways right up until the end, and the Boy Scouts were drilling on Winter Island. Many came back, some did not, but the entire city seems to have turned out for the spectacular Armistice Day parade, a century ago.

World War I April 1918 Gibneys

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November 1918

Salem Fraternity Drill 1918

Salem World War 1 Armistice ParadeSalem 1918: just a few Salem soldiers’ experiences as reported in November, Boston Globe; the Boy Scouts drill on Winter Island, US National Archives; Armistice Day Parade, SSU Archives and Special Collections.


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