Monday, January 29, 2007

MUSEUM MONDAY #2 - Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum

There's More to Salem than Witches!

Throughout my career, I've been extraordinarily dissatisfied with the way Salem, MA has been presented to students.

It has become a commercial, 'witchy' place, where tall, wide-brimmed witches' hats, brooms, black cats, Jack-o-Lanterns, glaring hags, and pagan symbols dominate all the gift shops and displays. Everyday is Halloween and I'm uncomfortable in this milieu; it sends the wrong message. While all this may be quite profitable, it cheapens a charming, hospitable, and historic town.

There is an extremely popular sight and sound presentation in a redundant church reminiscent of the Haunted House at Disney. Very nice people own and operate it; but in my opinion, it’s more sensational than instructive.

There are two other 'witch' venues which are truer to the trials, but they're still a bit, 'over-the-top' in delivery.

I don't want, Blair Witch Project, I want, The Crucible!

So I looked beyond the witchy stuff to explore the other Salem; the Salem of merchants, trade, ships, art, and literature.

I personally enjoy visiting the House of the Seven Gables and the tour is well-run, but in the score of years I have been conducting student tours in this area, incredibly, not one student had ever read the book or had known who Hawthorne was! (I'm not exaggerating! This has been a sad commentary on California curriculum, where most of my schools are from, and the teachers in charge of planning the ETP.) It generally fell to me to introduce Nathaniel Hawthorne and his work in order to prepare them for the tour of the house! Gosh! It must be frustrating for the house guides to deal with students sans background or reference points because almost every student from New England studies Hawthorne, but my West Coast groups are clueless! The guides, bless their hearts, have a cheerful disposition and take this in stride.

Before visiting a literary site, the students ought to be prepared by reading the work or having some background on the author!

Directly across the street from the House of the Seven Gables is, Ye Olde Pepper Companie, America's oldest candy store, that sells shopmade, old-fashioned candy from bygone days. And this is what the students remember!

There is also the Salem Maritime National Historic Site (where Hawthorne was a surveyor at the Customs House) which is part of the National Park Service. At this writing, there is a new Park Superintendent who is starting a re-examination of the site for content and future growth. (I certainly hope that improves their programs and services.)
The Friendship will be going into drydock in May to have some work on her keel.. Unfortunately, I think the site is understaffed due to drastic federal budget cuts affecting the entire NPS. They do have self-guided walking tours.

But the real gem of Salem is the Peabody Essex Museum

Salem's Peabody Essex Museum was founded 1799/

I want to wax lyrical concerning this gorgeous museum complex, but I haven't enough space. The collection is spead amongst thirty galleries and historic properties and they have over 2.4 million items (not counting all the special exhibits they host).

The Ying Tu Tang Chinese merchants house is well worth the visit. I always add it in for my groups so they can see the difference of lifestyles between the Yankee merchants and their counterparts in China. This house reflects three hundred years of habitation and one can even find remnants of Mao and the Cultural Revolution!

There are wonderful educational programs for school groups concerning art, maritime history, and the history of Salem. I personally like, Days of Judgment which is a curriculum/standards-based program on, well, the witchy stuff!

In addition. the Peabody Essex Museum is part of ECHO , Education Through Cultural and Historical Organization, a federally-funded educational and cultural enrichment initiative which also includes the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, MA.

Plan at least four hours for proper visit and educational program, but I guarantee, you and your students will want more!

The Educational Tour Marm

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