Salem Museum Gives In, Exhibits 1692 Witch-Trial Materials

Samuel Sewall, a witch trial judge, painted by John Smibert (Peabody Essex Museum).

In 2017, Donna Seger, a history professor at Salem State University (Massachusetts) wrote an open letter to the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum, a big, rich institution in downtown Salem that along with being a major art museum, controls (and usually hides) the town’s historical archives.

Her letter stated,

Please reconsider your decision to remove Salem’s historical archives from Salem.

I consider the Peabody Essex Museum to be an extraordinary asset to our city, fostering engagement, awareness, and edification. Furthermore, I understand that in order for it to flourish, it had to become greater than the sum of its two parts: the former Peabody Museum and Essex Institute. Yet those two institutions, the products of the fruits and labors of generations of Salem residents, created a foundation on which the PEM was built: a strong foundation that is acknowledged in the museum’s mission statement, which asserts its 1799 foundation and status as “America’s oldest continuously operating museum”. There are no explicit references to history in this statement, but it is implicit everywhere, especially in the aim to transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. A key path towards self-knowledge and knowledge in general is historical understanding, which is grounded in historical archives full of people as well as papers.

Shortly before that, the travel writer J. W. Ocker[1]Say it with a long O, like “oak-er” wrote in his highly entertaining book A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusettsthat the Peabody Essex, “the oldest continually operating museum in America,” was well, sort of embarassed by its local-history collection, including the surviving documents from the 1692 witch trials.

“We don’t talk about Salem, we talk about the world,” the PEM’s chief marketing officer told Ocker. “The October [witchy] crowd, they don’t go to art museums.[2]I think that M. and I proved him wrong, although admittedly we did not visit in October. . . . . We are a museum of art and culture, not a museum of social history.”[3]J. W. Ocker, i Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts (New York: The Countryman Press, 2016), 78–79.

Somoone must have suffered a change of mind though, because the Peabody Essex is offering a new exhibit through April 4: “The Salem Witch Trials, 1692.

Follow the links there and you will find more, such as a podcast on the trials’ legacy.

Join [Dinah Cardin] and Chip Van Dyke, your hosts of the PEMcast, as we go beyond the often-told story of the Salem witch trials to give you a deeper understanding of what happened. We’ll explore what life was truly like in a 17th-century home, go to key sites around the city and even find ourselves on a hilltop in Maine. A selection of the largest collection of Salem witch trial documents goes on view at PEM on September 26, with the opening of The Salem Witch Trials 1692. Visitors can also see, from PEM’s collection, possessions related to the judges, and the 25 innocent people tragically died.

Watch it if you can’t visit the exhibit, and be glad that perhaps peace has been made between the high art-focused museum leadership and the events three hundred twenty-eight years ago that remain spirituall potent today.

Notes

1 Say it with a long O, like “oak-er”
2 I think that M. and I proved him wrong, although admittedly we did not visit in October.
3 J. W. Ocker, i Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts (New York: The Countryman Press, 2016), 78–79.