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Essex Institute and State Armory Salem, MA

Phillips Library Collection – A Part Of The Heritage Of Salem


The Issue For The PEM Is TRUST

by William Legault

This is the time of year when the words of Charles Dickens are often cited. Today I find that two quotes, one each from two of his books are relevant.

First is the opening line from A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief it was the epoch of incredulity.”

For both the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) and Salem it truly is the best of times, the age of wisdom, and the epoch of belief. We are fortunate to have the PEM here, they are smart enough to keep themselves relevant on the world stage, and they they are a critical piece of our economy.

The PEM has been the beneficiary of some endowments that make them a legitimate player in the global museum world. They are in the middle of another expansion, one that doesn’t increase the footprint of the building outside of its current properties. Their displays of the art of popular culture draws visitors from every point of the compass.

Salem benefits from all of that. We are better off with the PEM here in Salem than we would be without them. Their presence and their work balances out the sometimes overwhelming witchcraft and halloween themed attractions and events which are also critical to our economy.

It is also the worst of times, the age of foolishness, and the epoch of incredulity. They have grown tremendously without seeming to really care about how their growth is perceived by many and are then incredulous that anyone would question them or their motives.

The second quote is from Jacob Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol. “I wear the chain I forged in life, I made it link by link and yard by yard; I girded it of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Those who run the PEM should give these words from Marley some deep thought. Over the years they have made promises that have not been kept. I won’t list them here. There are also many other situations where locals recall other promises that may or may not be urban legend. It doesn’t matter if they are true or not at this point. The fact is, a sizable number of Salemites do not trust the PEM. Much of that mistrust has been earned, and despite legitimate efforts in recent years to work more with the community, that trust is still not there. That lack of trust is the chain that the PEM wears everyday.

Some years ago, prior to the last big expansion, the PEM clashed with the City and threatened to leave for Boston. Our leaders at the time seemed intent on calling their “bluff.” It was felt that the PEM wanted too much, so heels were dug in and a fight began. One morning apparently, somebody with sense woke up and realized that there was no bluff. Negotiations began and the the PEM remained. We are better off that they did. It is time again for that same sense, the common kind, to come into play on the the part of the City and the PEM.

Protests and social media efforts to get the attention of the PEM are a part of a process that have already began. This is not however, about just attracting attention, it is about doing the right thing by the Phillips Library collection from the greatly mourned and missed Essex Institute. It is about our history in Salem, and our history in Essex County. It is about trust. City leaders, to include those in academia, business, and those who have a true love for the history of Salem must work together in a concerted and sincere effort to create true dialogue with the PEM. It is imperative that the PEM accept this dialogue and listen closely.

The Phillips Library and it’s collection have long been a part of the heritage of Salem. The collection belongs here.

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