To the editor:
Let me begin by stating that the local issues of the present, including the affordability and availability of housing, taxes and infrastructure, should be of paramount consideration in Salem’s upcoming election. The living should certainly have priority over the dead! But for quite some time Salem has been identifying itself as “historic,” and as we have an economy that is increasingly based on tourism and a 400th anniversary approaching, I think some consideration of the past, particularly the stewardship of the past by our elected officials, is warranted as we all consider whom we might want to elect to our new City Council in November.
For me, it is very clear, because we had a test when the Peabody Essex Museum announced its intent to move the collections of the Phillips Library, Salem’s largest historical archive by far, to a new collection center in Rowley nearly two years ago. The City Council passed two resolutions in response to this announcement: the first, in January of 2018, requested that “the PEM convene a working group including representatives from all stakeholders as soon as possible to begin the work of keeping Salem’s most treasured history in Salem.” This working group did indeed convene and met three times, with the result that “Salem’s most treasured history” remains in Rowley. Then-PEM Director Dan Monroe promised an open reading room and Phillips collection exhibits in both the newly renovated Daland building and the main museum in January of 2018, and that is exactly where things still stand. I have heard no member of the City Council comment on this, including Ward 2 Councilor Christine Madore, who was privileged to be on the working committee. The City Council’s second resolution regarding “Salem’s most treasured history” came in July of 2018, when an order was passed instructing the city solicitor to “request from the Peabody Essex Museum a list of all the items in their possession, custody, or control that are owned by the city of Salem.” More than a year later, when PEM librarians were asked about the status of this request, they responded: We are waiting to hear back from the city about what they believe we have. These are veterans’ records, poor-relief records, urban redevelopment records, some records that by law should be held in the city of Salem. But no one is looking out for them: there has been no follow-up or enforcement of these City Council resolutions, which renders them, of course, meaningless.
If Salem does get its history back, in parts or in whole, it will be due to the constant advocacy of certain dedicated individuals in our city, the intervention of the attorney general’s office, and the benevolence of the Peabody Essex Museum, and not to any actions on the part of our city’s current elected officials. In reference to the former, I would like to point to the early and articulate advocacy of two candidates for councilor-at-Large, Jeff Cohen and Ty Hapworth, as well as the support and expertise offered by the write-in candidate for Ward 2 councilor, Stacia Kraft, who has long been active in preservation issues. I will be voting for these three candidates on Nov. 5, and I invite all those who seek to protect Salem’s heritage to join me.
Donna S. Seger