Exploitation or Denial

The Peabody Essex Museum is, without a doubt, an institution that Salem can and should be proud of. From its stellar collections and exhibits, to its engaging public programming, there is no denying that it's a world-class museum. Still, there's one accolade that the PEM regularly receives that drives me absolutely bananas: the Peabody Essex Museum is a great alternative to Salem's "witch stuff." I want to know why the Peabody Essex Museum is not THE venue for Salem locals and visitors who are interested in the Salem Witch Trials ?   

The Witch Hunt in Scotland artifact display,   National Museum of Scotland  , Edinburgh, UK. 

The Witch Hunt in Scotland artifact display, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, UK. 

In 1992, the Peabody Museum of Salem merged with Salem's de facto historical society, the Essex Institute, to become the Peabody Essex Museum. This newly formed institution became the steward of Salem's documentary and material history, including manuscripts and artifacts related to the Salem Witch Trials. Here's a list of items that the PEM owns (or at least owned at one point) relating to the trials and people involved in the trials:

Documents: 
Examination of Martha Corey March 21, 1691/2
Indictment #1 of Abigail Hobbs Sept 10, 1692
Complaint v. George Burroughs August 3, 1692
Indictment #4 of George Burroughs August 3, 1692
Indictment v. Mary Parker Sept 16, 1692
Nehemiah Abbot Sr. v. Elizabeth Howe June 30, 1692
John Andrew v. Sarah Wilds June 30, 1692
Joseph Andrew v. Sarah Wilds June 30, 1692
Thomas Dorman v. Sarah Wilds July 2, 1692
Humphrey Clark v. Sarah Wilds July 2, 1692
Nathaniel Ingersoll v. Sarah Wilds April 22, 1692
Ann Putnam Jr. v. Sarah Wilds April 22, 1692
Mary Wolcott v. Sarah Wilds April 22, 1692
John Gould v. Sarah Wilds July 2, 1692
Zacheus Perkins v. Sarah Wilds July 2, 1692
Elizabeth Symonds v. Sarah Wilds July 2, 1692
Indictment of Sarah Wilds June 30, 1692
Account of Jail Keeper, William Dounlon 1692
Daniel Andrew for Rebecca Nurse March 24, 1692
Peter Cloyse for Rebecca Nurse March 24, 1692
Elizabeth Porter for Rebecca Nurse March 24, 1692
Israel Porter for Rebecca Nurse March 24, 1692
Complaint v. George Burroughs April 30, 1692
Elizabeth Hubert v. George Burroughs April 30, 1692
Mercy Lewis v. George Burroughs April 30, 1692
Ann Putnam v. George Burroughs April 30, 1692
Susannah Sheldon v. George Burroughs April 30, 1692
Mary Walcott v. George Burroughs April 30, 1692
Abigail Williams v. George Burroughs April 30, 1692
Nathaniel Ingersoll v. Elizabeth Proctor April 4, 1692
Samuel Parris v. Elizabeth Proctor April 4, 1692
Thomas Putnam v. Elizabeth Proctor April 4, 1692
Elizabeth Fuller v. John Lee undated
Joseph Pope v. John Proctor April 11, 1692
John Hale v. Sarah Wilds July 2, 1692
Ann Putnam Sr. v. Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse March 24, 1692
Indictment #2 of Abigail Hobbs Sept 10, 1692
Examination of Ann Foster July 21, 1692
Examination of Mary Lacey, Sr. July 22, 1692
Examination of Mary Lacey, Jr. July 22, 1692
Examination of Richard Carrier July 22, 1692
Examination of Andrew Carrier July 22, 1692
Examination of Mary Toothaker July 30, 1692
Examination of Sarah Carrier Sept 2, 1692
Examination of Thomas Carrier, Jr. Sept 2, 1692
Examination of Hannah Post August 25, 1692
Examination of Sarah Bridges August 25, 1692
Examination of Mary Marston August 30, 1692
Examination of Mary Barker August 19, 1692
Examination of Elizabeth Johnson, Jr. August 11, 1692
Confession of Sarah Wardwell Sept 2, 1692
Examination of Sarah Hawks Sept 1, 1692
Examination of Mary Wardwell Sept 1, 1692
Examination of Johanna Tyler Sept 16, 1692
Examination of William Barker, Jr. Sept 1, 1692
Examination of Stephen Johnson Sept 1, 1692
John Putnam Sr. v. George Burroughs May 9, 1692
Rebecca Putnam v. George Burroughs May 9, 1692
Testimony of William Rayment Jr. for Elizabeth Proctor August 5, 1692
Indictment #2 of Elizabeth How June 29, 1692
Second Examination of Rebecca Eames August 31, 1692
Samuel Sibley v. Sarah Good June 29, 1692
Indictment of Mary Lacey Sr. Sept 14, 1692

(In addition to the documents listed above, owned by the museum, the PEM also holds the Essex County Court Archives, Salem Witchcraft Papers, a collection deposited at the Essex Institute in December 1980) 

Artifacts:
Sampler by Mary Hollingsworth English (accused & imprisoned)
Two canes owned by George Jacobs (executed)
Sundial owned by John Proctor (executed)
Chair owned by Philip English (accused & imprisoned)
Trunk owned by Judge Jonathan Corwin
Valuables Cabinet owned by Bathsheba Pope (accuser)

Art: 
Judge Samuel Sewall portrait, painted by John Smibert
The Witch House, painted by Samuel Bartoll, 1819
Examination of a Witch, painted by T. H. Matteson, 1853
The Trial of George Jacobs, painted by T. H. Matteson, 1855

The current situation regarding the Phillips Library collection reflects Salem's fraught relationship with its own history.  The institution that should be taking the lead on witch trials interpretation for locals and visitors, one that owns witch trials documents and artifacts, as well as houses that stood in Salem in 1692 (including one that stood across the street from the jail in the seventeenth century), is instead removing remnants of this history from our city entirely. This approach is reminiscent of the "collective amnesia"*** toward the trials that characterized the community from the time of Governor Phips’ publication ban on witch trials literature, up until the day that someone realized they could make a buck off of a witch spoon.  

This abdication of responsibility by the PEM has contributed to a local public history fiasco: Salem Witch Trials education is largely the domain of downtown’s for-profit tourism machine, an industry that has little incentive to educate properly as long as hordes of visitors are coming through the doors. And so, with a few notable exceptions (History Alive!, the Witch House, a few of the year-round walking tour companies, and the National Park Service’s great documentary come to mind), Salem’s establishments offer the tourist or local interested in one of the most well-known episodes in American history one of two options: exploitation or denial. 

We deserve better. Our visitors deserve better. This history deserves better. How can we do better ? 

*** Read more about this in Dr. Emerson Baker's book, A Storm of Witchcraft