December 12, 2017

Can We Save Salem?


The Essex Institute, c. 1910-1920 (Library of Congress)

Peabody Essex Museum Plans to Remove 400 Years of Salem's History 

            As Salem, Massachusetts approaches the 400th anniversary of its founding, the city is simultaneously being robbed of its 400 years of history.
            On December 6, 2017, Bob Monk, a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) along with a member of the PEM’s architectural firm, Schwartz/Silver, confirmed what many Salemites had been fearing since 2011. The collections of the Phillips Library would not be returning to their home at 132 Essex Street.
            In 1992, The Peabody Essex Museum was created by a merger between Salem’s most prominent institutions, the Peabody Museum and the Essex Institute. Both institutions were the stewards of four centuries worth of artifacts, documents, furniture, and even buildings, all of which contributed to the historic fabric of the city. Some of these objects were donated by Salem families and businesses, hoping to leave a legacy for the city’s future generations. While others were deposited by institutions that, at the time, didn’t have the funds or space to properly care for them. Items include: papers from Salem's founding, documents and artifacts relating to the Salem Witch Trials, log books from Salem’s “Great Age of Sail,” a signed first edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and a deposited copy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter. Not to mention volumes of manuscripts and family heirlooms donated over the years.
            In 2011, when the Peabody Essex Museum announced the temporary closure and relocation of the Phillips Library and the Museum’s archival collection. The news was relatively well received by scholars and the public alike. Many had mourned the loss of The Essex Institute and looked forward to a more accessible, well maintained display of Salem’s history. In an interview with The Salem News, the Museum’s public relations officer, April Swieconek, referred to the Phillips Library as “a part of what we are, and a part of what Salem is.”
            Not only is The Phillips Library “a part of what Salem is,” it in fact is the largest depository of Salem’s collective history, giving the Peabody Essex Museum a monopoly over the City’s past. As Salem struggles to define itself and its history to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, it has become increasingly apparent that the collections of the PEM hold the key to the proper interpretation of the city’s historic past. A role that they have failed to uphold. The Peabody Essex Museum has instead spent the past decade, focused on branding itself as a leading art museum, and to that claim, it has been successful. But at what cost?
            The 2013 proposed completion date of the Phillips Library came and went with little-to-no new information announced by the PEM. In December 2016, The Peabody Essex Museum announced the addition of “40,000-square-foot wing” to be completed on the Museum’s main campus by 2019.
            The silence surrounding the fate of the Phillips Library was broken on December 6, 2017 when Bob Monk announced to Salem’s Historical Commission that, as of 2018, the Phillips Library collections would permanently be housed in Rowley, Massachusetts, forty minutes outside of its Salem origin. Monk claimed that the PEM was unable to find a suitable location in Salem for the return of its collections.
             Not only was Salem to lose her 400 years of history to Rowley, but the beautiful brick, Plummer Hall and Daland House buildings, which previously housed the collections were to be desecrated as well, and closed to the public, for the sake of private office space to house the Museum’s staff.
            During the Historical Commission meeting, Schwartz/Silver (initially hired for the 2011 renovation) displayed mock-ups illustrating the destruction of the grand stairs and the connector, which first united the two buildings in 1907, as the home of The Essex Institute. Just as the Peabody Essex Museum is severing Salem from its history, Schwartz/Silver are severing Plummer Hall from the Daland House. The crowning jewel of the PEM’s attack on Salem’s history? A modern glass encasement to replace the 110-year-old connector, to better match the Museum’s 40,000-square-foot new wing across the street.
            This is, however, not the first time the historic city has wrestled with the possibility of losing its history. In 1965, at the pinnacle of Urban Renewal, Salem stood to replace its architectural heritage with highways and parking lots. By this plan, the site of the PEM’s new wing would have become part of a four-lane highway. The New York Times architecture critic and preservationist Ada Louise Huxtable wrote a front-page article, credited with saving Salem, calling the proposed plan “alarmingly insensitive,” stating, the city would “bulldoze rather than rehabilitate.” Summing it up with, “the business community is accused of paying lip service to history while planning to demolish it.” Ada’s sentiments echo in the aftermath of the PEM’s latest announcement. Has the PEM been "paying lip service to history" while planning to demolish it all along? Is this Salem’s latest battle against Urban Renewal? And if so, is there an Ada Louise Huxtable that can save the city?
            The recent proposal by the Peabody Essex Museum shows the Museum’s complete disconnect with the Salem community, and the rich history they are the stewards of. The Museum has lost the trust of its patrons, many of which in recent days have resigned their memberships, stood united in protest, contacted their state representatives, and signed a petition aimed at keeping the archives in Salem. The collective disappointment weighs heavily throughout the city and is the primary topic of conversation. If a compromise isn’t found, Salem, a city synonymous with history, will be forced to mourn its loss.

              *Articles and links mentioned above can be found at Save The Phillips Library.

No comments:

Post a Comment