NO MATTER how rich or successful you become, you should always remember where you came from. Unfortunately, the Peabody Essex Museum seems to have forgotten.
Today’s PEM is the product of a 1992 merger between the Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute. Since then, it has transformed itself into an exciting and internationally acclaimed art museum. An ongoing $650 million fund-raising campaign aims to deliver $350 million to the endowment, $200 million for physical expansion, and $100 million for infrastructure improvements. That’s impressive, and it should give this museum a luxury others lack: the financial freedom to blend a commitment to creative growth with respect for the soul of the local community. Dan L. Monroe, who has led the PEM since the merger, promised both: “We will bring art, history, and culture together. We will continue to celebrate our heritage here in New England. But our roots are international and we will continue to be strongly focused on the global community,” Monroe declared, in a 1993 interview with the Globe.
The museum’s international commitment is clear. The local one is much fuzzier.
In 2011, as part of its new vision and expansion plan, PEM moved a voluminous collection of manuscripts and documents pertaining to the art, history, and culture of Essex County and New England from Salem to a Peabody storage facility. At the time, museum officials said the so-called Phillips Library collection — which includes the Salem witch trial records — would be returned to PEM, where it was housed in two historical buildings and a later 1966 addition. However, at the end of the summer, the public learned the entire collection would be permanently relocated to another storage facility, in Rowley. The haughty manner in which the news was delivered rankled local residents. “They said their number one responsibility is preservation. What about access?” asked Donna Seger, who chairs the history department at Salem State University.
Portions of the two historic buildings will be used for office space. According to museum officials, the buildings could not be retrofitted to meet current building code requirements, an outcome that was not determined until the collection was removed.
Taking the witch trial records out of Salem does feel as heretical as taking the Liberty Bell out of Philadelphia. Those court records hold a special place in Massachusetts history, as they teach an important lesson about mass hysteria, jurisprudence, and evidence.
But the museum insists there’s no alternative. The witch trial records are digitized and available online, a museum spokeswoman said. They have been prominently exhibited at PEM in the past, and depending on curatorial decision-making, may go on view again in the future, she added.
But what about the rest of the Phillips Library collection? The museum is promising to devote space in the historic buildings to a public reading room. But local historians wonder what will actually be accessible there. “We would like a real commitment on digitization,” said Donald Friary, a Salem resident and president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
As Salem’s mayor, Kim Driscoll, sees it, PEM’s plan for storing the Phillips Library collection will in fact help preserve it. But execution of the plan was poor. “It’s not what they’re doing, but how they’re doing it,” she said in a telephone interview. Driscoll has put together a working group, whose mission is to get the museum and the community on the same page.
It should be one that honors the past with exhibit space, digitization, and respect.