A Beautiful Tomb

The Phillips Library in 1998, at the tail end of its days as a living, breathing institution in downtown Salem (thanks to Mike Vitka for this image !)

The Phillips Library in 1998, at the tail end of its days as a living, breathing institution in downtown Salem (thanks to Mike Vitka for this image !)

Yesterday I had the chance to visit the new PEM Collections Center/Phillips Library in Rowley. While I sincerely thank the PEM for the opportunity to view the facility, my feelings on the matter at hand have not changed much.

The facility itself is beautiful; I admit that I am not trained in collections and/or archives, and I do not have much practical knowledge in that realm, but as far as I could tell, the manuscripts, books, and museum collections are being cared for and preserved to the highest degree of professional standards. Everything is organized and cataloged, with plenty of space for the collection to grow. It is a facility that I imagine most curators and archivists in America (and maybe the world) would envy.

But what struck me the most as I walked through stacks filled with family papers, letters, diaries, and ship logs, as I breathed in the intoxicating smell of old books, and as the tour guide stopped to point out Samuel McIntire’s original Salem Common arch sitting in one of the museum collections rooms, is how sad it is that these items are in storage and not being seen and engaged with by the Salem Community.  

Let’s get one thing out of the way; the Essex Institute was Salem’s historical society. Between the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, every city in Essex County (with the exception of Amesbury) created a historical society, but Salem did not; we had the Essex Institute. Sure the collection was and is wider than just Salem, with papers, books, and items relevant to cities all over Essex County and even the wider world. But the foundation of that collection has always been Salem, the seat, the capital, the heart of Essex County, and much of what the museum holds that can be described as “global” is tied inextricably to the history of Salem as a formidable maritime power. Salem’s history is global.

Since the Essex Institute merged with the Peabody Museum in 1992 to form the Peabody Essex Museum, the Salem story has been sidelined and the institution has made the undoubtedly conscious transition to “art museum”. No one can deny that this was a smart financial decision on the part of the Peabody Essex board, and that what they’ve built is an economic and cultural boon for Salem. But our history, the number one reason why tourists visit Salem and the number one reason why residents love living in Salem, slipped through the cracks and was utterly lost.  

So while I congratulate the PEM on its state-of-the-art facility and high standards of preservation that will undoubtedly ensure that the library and museum collections survive for centuries to come, I implore the community not to fall for the false dichotomy of preservation vs. accessibility and engagement. We preserve our past in order to interpret it and learn from it, not simply to lock it away in a beautiful tomb.

And I implore the PEM to create a “Salem History Center” in Plummer Hall & Daland house, to install a permanent and comprehensive exhibit on Salem’s history, to create a space for a rotating exhibit on Salem’s History, to staff the Salem reading room and make it the main point of access for the Phillips library (the reading room in the new facility leaves much to be desired), and to please make good on your ten-year-old promise to digitize the archives.

Please resurrect our incredible history.     

Phillips Library Reading Room in Salem, 2008, before being shuttered in 2011 with promises of a 2013 reopening

Phillips Library Reading Room in Salem, 2008, before being shuttered in 2011 with promises of a 2013 reopening

New Phillips Library Reading Room at the PEM Collections Center in Rowley, 2018 (Photo by Paul Bilodeau)

New Phillips Library Reading Room at the PEM Collections Center in Rowley, 2018 (Photo by Paul Bilodeau)