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FINDING MEANING

What’s a ‘witch hunt,’ anyway? The Salem Witch Museum has your answers

An online postcard collection reveals how museum visitors define the persecutor and the persecuted.

The Salem Witch Museum exhibit, shown in December 2017.Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe/file

If anyone is particularly Interested in the use (and misuse) of the phrase “witch hunt,” it’s the staffers at the Salem Witch Museum.

It’s been a particularly busy four years of people deciding they’re the victims of such a hunt, of saying so in dramatic speeches on the news. But it’s really nothing new; people have been saying this for centuries.

But who should be allowed to define themselves as the persecuted? Do people even know what a witch hunt really is?

In 2017, the Salem Witch Museum began a project to get a sense of how people defined “witch hunt,” and how the phrase might apply to more modern times. The idea originally came up in 2013 as part of a larger conversation the museum staff was having about discrimination.

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For three years now, visitors to the museum — who come from all over the world — have been offered postcards at the end of their tours. They’re taken through the exhibits halls, which detail the history of the witch trials, which took place in Salem between 1692 and 1693. The path ends with a lesson about how the phrase “witch hunt” applies to events in more recent years. The staff came up with a formula for what amounts to a witch hunt: “fear + a trigger = a scapegoat.” The exhibit is clear about definitions: “A scapegoat is defined as a person who is unfairly or irrationally the object of blame.”

Unfairly. Irrationally. These words are important.

Examples given by the museum include the gay community being the scapegoat during the AIDS crisis. There’s also blacklisted citizens who became scapegoats because a fear of communism. The trigger? Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Visitors are then asked to fill out the postcard with their own examples of a witch hunt. The answers — of which there are many hundreds — have been revealing.

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I first spoke to the museum’s director of education Rachel Christ in 2017, when the project started. At the time she said the project had become a litmus test for how people see the world. It was something to discuss and consider, even if you didn’t agree with someone’s card.

“So what I think is happening is people are starting to say ‘witch hunt, witch hunt, witch hunt,’ but they’re not thinking about what it means, which in a way is kind of a good thing because it gives us an opportunity to keep talking about what witch hunts are in a historical context,” Christ said shortly after the project began. Christ said the museum isn’t taking any sides; it’s simply offering information and context and then asking people to consider what matches the formula. “What we’ve chosen to do throughout this whole period is, we’re not commenting on what’s going on in a contemporary sense. Because it’s not our place to preach.”

Some people really get it, some don’t, even after going through the exhibit.

Regardless, reading the collection of postcards — which the museum began posting online in 2018 — is an education. I’ve been checking in every so often since then. Some people use very contemporary examples; for instance, one person noted that Chinese people became scapegoats for fear of the coronavirus, triggered by the “CDC/WHO.” That entry came from someone from Singapore. Someone in Massachusetts submitted that immigrants became the scapegoat for the fears of a failing economy, and that the witch hunt trigger was Fox News.

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One postcard from a Connecticut visitor lists President Trump as a scapegoat, the victim of a “fear of conservatism,” triggered by the 2016 election. A submission from Florida submitted in 2019 says Trump supporters are the scapegoats for a fear of Nazism triggered by Democrats.

A July 2019 entry says that Tom Brady is the scapegoat for a fear of the Patriots. The trigger? “Ryan Grigson’s misunderstanding of science.” (This is over my head but I’m sure someone will explain it to me.)

Some have objected to cards they’ve seen on the site; Christ said she received a note from someone who objected to what they believed was a racist entry.

From the Salem Witch Museum's witch hunt exhibit.Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe/file

“And I responded, and I said, ‘You know, as it says on the website, these are not supposed to be a reflection of what we think as an institution. It’s a chance for people to give us their unedited voice about what they think of as the scapegoat.’ And hopefully, this becomes a living exhibit in and of itself.”

Christ said some teachers have reached out about using the cards as a tool in classrooms. The museum is also going to work on designing curriculums that can be brought to schools. It’s a priority, now that Halloween is over. (It was an especially strange one this year because of COVID-19.) People can also post their own entries online on the site from afar.

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“Actually, this winter, amongst our other projects, is we’re going to start pivoting toward making more and more curriculum and doing more virtual classroom sessions. So this is something that hopefully will be one of those lessons.”

I asked Christ whether the project has made her more hopeful or more concerned. The entries represent a nation that can’t agree on which people need help, or who has suffered because of other people’s fear.

“I mean, overall, yes, I’m very hopeful. I think a lot of people do understand it — what a scapegoat is, a group of people who become this object of blame for no reason other than they’re a minority, or a group that doesn’t quite fit into a social norm. If you look at the history of witch hunts, that’s what scapegoats are — people who kind of challenged social norms in some way. A lot of people do get it. And like you said, though, a lot of people don’t. And that’s OK, too, because we’re not expecting everyone to immediately jump in and understand it. But it’s about the process of talking about it. And one of the best ways we can approach something like this is just getting people to think about it and start to have a conversation.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.