Cashing In On History

13 Jun

During my daily search for arts-related news, I came upon this rather interesting story.  Basically Salem, Massachusetts is saying that they don’t want to simply be known for witches anymore.  It’s a nice idea, but will it work?

I have a special place in my heart for Salem.  When I was 2 or 3 years old my family took a road trip through New England.  My earliest memories are from that trip, and most of those are from Salem.  Fittingly one of the things I remember is going to one of the many witch-themed museums in town.  I doubt it was the first museum I had ever visited, but it is certainly the first one I remember.

Now the city authorities are trying to let everyone know that there’s much more to the town than its many haunted houses and fortune tellers, attractions that are hoping to lure tourists who come for the city’s association with witchcraft.  The problem they’re having is that these people often only come in October, and they’re looking to draw tourists the rest of the year, as well.  And more importantly, does anyone care about what happened in Salem beyond the witch trials?

What city authorities have done is to be applauded.  Rather than completely ignoring what they’re famous for, they’re simply trying to remind people that there’s more to the city.  Salem was a major port city for centuries and his home to one of the oldest museums in the United States, the Peabody Essex Museum.  Literary types can also follow in the footsteps of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the city’s most famous resident.  Tourism is an important industry for the city, and they’re trying to branch out and attract more people.  You can’t blame them for that.

Salem has always been a unique case, though.  Whereas other cities try to avoid the darker parts of their past, Salem has always embraced their association with the witch trials in 1692.  By way of comparison, a search of the Chicago tourism site yields no results when you look for words such as “Prohibition”, “mob”, “mafia”, or even “Capone”.  By keeping a certain reverence to their past, Salem is not only helping its tourism industry but also keeping alive the ideals of tolerance and justice, both of which were completely absent from the trials.

It’s not just good tourism, it’s good history.  People need to learn history to be able to understand what is happening in the present day, no matter what’s involved.  I’m not naive enough to think that all of the town’s emphasis on witchcraft is from an altruistic sense of reminding people of one of the low points in American colonial history.  Money is certainly also a factor, but it’s all part of the combination of history and tourism that exists in modern life.  The important thing is that they’re trying to keep all aspects of their history accessible to the public.  More cities should take note.

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