I must interrupt my festive holiday posts to mark a somber anniversary today: a year ago a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum admitted that there were no plans to reopen the long-shuttered Phillips Library in Salem, and that its archives and texts were soon to be relocated to a consolidated Collection Center in Rowley, in response to questions from members of the Salem Historical Commission. This admission was historic in a dual sense: it concerned history, the collected history of generations of Salem’s families and institutions, entrusted to an institution which couldn’t even be bothered to announce their removal, and it marked a moment in which Salem’s historic identity could now be cast in considerable doubt. It also triggered a series of responses and events which revealed so much to me about how history–and access to history—is perceived and valued in Salem. I was going to write an anniversary post anyway, just to wrap up this dismal year, but then an extraordinary coincidence manifested itself, and now I have a comparative format for my retrospective review. It happens that not only has my adopted hometown lost its archives, the hometown of my youth is on the verge of losing its as well! I feel like the personification of some powerful archival curse.
Mr. James Kences of York, Maine protesting the imminent removal of Old York’s archives to a collections center in nearby Kittery, utilizing the same by-law precedent that we’ve employed here in Salem. Photo of Mr. Kences by Rich Beauchesne/Seacoastonline.
This may seem like an apples and oranges comparison with the only link being my personal interest, as the Peabody Essex Museum is a large, multi-faceted and well-endowed institution of international stature and the Museums of Old York constitute a local heritage organization with far fewer resources, but I think there are some interesting contrasts, particularly in the words and actions of the interested parties. Salem (1626) and York (1624) are also both venerable colonial settlements, with historical influence beyond their municipal boundaries. The Old York move is mandated by the sale of an old bank building in the center of town for redevelopment: not only have Old York’s plans been completely transparent since the publication of its strategic plan in 2015, but its Director, Joel Lefever, publicly acknowledged that York residents had the right to “raise questions” about the relocation of the archives out of town and even applauded the colorful protest of Mr. Kences. Compare this attitude and these statements to those of the now-retiring PEM Executive Director Dan Monroe: 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 (Boston Globe, January 13, 2018).
Old York’s decision to sell a downtown administrative building to focus resources on its historic buildings further afield was dictated by economic necessity and made in collaboration with the Town of York, which is embarking on a York Village revitalization project; the PEM’s decision to relocate the Phillips Library was a choice, not a necessity, made in isolation and opacity. Several organizations which had placed items on deposit in the Library, including the Salem Athenaeum and the Pickering House, were not even notified that their materials were to be relocated out of Salem. It was also revealed during the many hearings before the Historical Commission following the December 6 admission that the PEM had failed to file a master plan with the city of Salem, contrary to municipal regulations. While Salem residents are always in the dark when it comes to the PEM; I do hope our Planning Department knows more!
A romantic rendering of what might have been—if the PEM had fulfilled its promises to develop the Salem Armory and preserve the Phillips Library: not sure about the new situation of the John Ward House but it’s been moved once before. Not sure of the source or date either–I found it unlabeled on social media. Obviously the PEM went in quite a different direction.
There has also been a stark contrast in the reactions of municipal officials in York and Salem. Apparently there is no avenue to avoid the relocation of York’s archives to Kittery for the short term, but both the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen seem committed to finding a way for them to return. In an article in the York Weekly by Deborah McDermott, Town Manager Steve Burns allowed that there was no place suitable for the archives in York at present, But long term, the town I believe has an obligation to the heritage of the town to see if we can do something. This does not satisfy the passionate Mr. Kences, but I would be thrilled to hear a similar sentiment spoken in Salem: an obligation to the heritage of the town. For her part, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll never questioned publicly either the preservation-in-Rowley vs. decomposition-in-Salem scenario sold by PEM or its place-detached vision of history, and celebrated the Museum’s “investment in history” at the opening of the Collection Center in Rowley this past July. I do hope that the Museum makes a considerable investment in Salem’s history in the forms of library staff and digitization: at present (and as has been the case for some time) its most essential materials on commercial and cultural encounters in East Asia, so very valuable for the understanding of both local and world history, are accessible only behind a very expensive paywall at the digital publisher Adam Matthew and so inaccessible to Salem’s residents—and Salem students. While Salem’s history has been packaged as a digital “product”, the old Essex Institute buildings which once housed it remain dark and empty.
There are also some interesting comparisons to be made regarding the quest for institutional and municipal vitality: the goal of both the PEM and Old York as well as their host communities. Old York’s archives are just that, historical archives, whereas the Phillips Collections of PEM constitute a large and multi-dimensional library, constituting myriad print and manuscript materials. It’s a bit difficult to see how the former collection could foster the development of a lively cultural community in York Village, but a Phillips Library returned to its original location could enhance Salem’s already vibrant cultural scene in many ways and expand its own community in the process. Libraries are meant to be used, and library collections are different than curatorial collections: the consolidation of both in a remote Collection Center–inaccessible via public transportation–may make sense from an administrative point of view, but it can only handicap the former in terms of its essential function. Just as I hope for more digitization of Phillips materials, I also hope that researchers are flocking to Rowley, but as yet I don’t see any evidence of the sorts of activities that are associated with other research libraries like those of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and (most familiar to me) the Folger Shakespeare Library: exhibits, events, brown bag talks, teacher workshops, crowdsourced transcription projects. It is early days for Rowley’s Phillips Library, so maybe these will come, but I believe such engagement would evolve far more easily in Salem’s Phillips Library, enlightening a dark stretch of Essex Street in the process.
In my open letter to the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum from nearly a year ago, I focused on Nancy Lenox Remond, because I wanted to emphasize the connection between place and history. I couldn’t imagine a better example of someone whose history was made by Salem and who made Salem’s history in return! Mrs. Remond and her husband John were the resident caterers at Hamilton Hall and also operated several other businesses in downtown Salem. There were organizing members of Salem’s African-American church and abolitionist societies, and they advocated successfully for the desegregation of Salem’s schools. They raised eight children in Salem, among them the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond, for whom a seaside park in Salem is named. Here’s a photograph of Mrs. Remond and the Lafayette plaque at Hamilton Hall–which references a famous banquet which she and her husband John prepared. I didn’t understand a year ago, and I still don’t understand now, why the records of the lives and work of these extraordinary people, and all of the extraordinary people who made Salem, have to be located in Rowley.