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By THE PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM
Since 1692, Salem has been reckoning with a traumatic period in its history. More than 300 years after the town’s residents were pit against one another, divided into the accusers, the accused, and those who rose to defend, the city of Salem routinely welcomes thousands of tourists every year looking to make sense of the tragic story. This Fall, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is offering a fresh take with its new exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, which includes the contemporary perspectives of two artists who can trace their family roots back to the tragic events of 1692. Along with the personal possessions of 17th-century Salem residents and authentic Salem witch trial documents that can only be found at PEM, visitors can experience the work of photographer Frances F. Denny and selections from fashion designer Alexander McQueen, as the modern artists reclaim the word “witch” and all of its potential power.
The world’s largest collection of Salem witch trials materials can be found at PEM, including more than 500 original documents on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Selections of these documents along with furnishings and personal objects help tell the tragic and true story of those accused, including a trunk that once belonged to Jonathan Corwin, the magistrate who resided at the 17th-century building in Salem that is today known as the Witch House. A handwritten petition, a child’s loom, a walking stick — each illuminates an aspect of real lives lived during the period of Salem’s witch trials and serve as a reminder of the power dynamics and community tensions of the time. “It was important to us that, in this look at the tragic story, a multitude of voices share their personal histories and perspectives,” says Dan Lipcan, the Ann C. Pingree Director of PEM’s Phillips Library and one of the exhibition co-curators. “Putting these events into context and discovering connections and meaning between the past and the present is how we move forward from today’s tragedies and injustices.”
The late fashion designer Alexander McQueen discovered that he was related to one of the first victims of the Salem witch trials, Topsfield resident Elizabeth How. Several years ago, McQueen and Sarah Burton, now the creative director for the House of McQueen, visited Salem and key sites from the tragic events. The designer’s resulting Fall/Winter 2007 collection, In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1692, was based on his research into How’s tragic death, as she was hanged as a witch in July 1692.
Selections from McQueen’s resulting intensely personal and autobiographical collection will be on view, including the form-fitting velvet press sample runway dress from PEM’s collection, with a starburst hand-sewn in iridescent gunmetal-gray bugle beads that radiates down the neckline and across the chest and shoulders. Authentic documents help tell How’s story, from the initial complaint filed May 28, 1692 to the warrant for her arrest, her examination in court, testimony, indictment, pardon, and final restitution to her family in 1712.
As a descendent of both accusers and the accused, Frances F. Denny set out on a journey to discover modern-day witches, driving across the country to find her subjects and photograph them in their personal spaces. Denny’s series Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America features 13 portraits and accompanying personal essays. “Frances Denny reclaims the meaning of the word ‘witch’ from its historical use as a tool to silence and control women,” says Lydia Gordon, PEM’s associate curator and exhibition co-curator. “These intimate portraits remind us that identity is most truthful when it is self defined.”
What does witchery — re-envisioned with agency and power — look like today? Take a journey to PEM in Salem to find out. Experience the compelling stories of contemporary witches, freed from the idea of what a witch was in the 17th century. Discover healers, shamans, a Salem shop owner, and many others who have reckoned with the past to reclaim their future.