Alexander McQueen, 1969 -2010. Evening dress (detail), of the In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem, 1692, Ready-to-wear collection, fall/winter 2007. Velvet, glass pearls and satin. Peabody Essex Museum, gift from anonymous donors in London Friends of the Peabody Essex Museum, 2011.44.1. Photo by Bob Packert
On view from October 7, 2022 to January 22, 2023
In an episode that has resonated in American culture from colonial times until today, more than 200 residents of Salem, Massachusetts, were accused of witchcraft in 1692-1693. The trials led to the execution of 20 people, mostly women, and the death in prison of at least five others. The last of the defendants, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., was officially cleared in July 2022.
This fall, the New York Historical Society is re-examining this defining moment in American history and considering from a contemporary perspective how mass hysteria can lead to fatal injustice in exposure. The Salem Witch Trials: Calculation and Recovery. On view from October 7, 2022 to January 22, 2023 at the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, this traveling exhibition is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, and is coordinated at the New-York Historical by its Center for Women’s History, which uncovers the lives and legacies of the women who have shaped and continue to shape the American experience.
“Countless scholars and authors, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Arthur Miller, have preserved the memory and significance of the Salem witch trials, but this critical turning point in American history has never been seen as it is in The Salem Witch Trials: Account and Recovery,said Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of New-York Historical. “We are proud to present this extraordinary exhibit through our Women’s History Center, illustrating the Center’s mission to rethink familiar chapters of the past and deepen our understanding of them. We hope our visitors leave with a new perspective on these terrible events over 300 years ago and what they still mean to us today.
“The Salem Witch Trials have become rhetorical shorthand in contemporary discourse, but the actual historical events are often overlooked,” said Dan Lipcan, Ann C. Pingree director of PEM at the Phillips Library, along with curator Paula Richter and Associate Curator Lydia Gordon. “When we designed this exhibit, we wanted to provide a framework for a modern-day audience to understand what this chapter in history meant for the development of this country and what it says about the potential for each of us. We want visitors to feel the ongoing impact of the Salem Witch Trials, to think about what they say about race and gender, and to think about how they themselves might react at times similar widespread injustice.
The exhibition opens with historical artifacts, rare documents and contemporary narratives, which include testimonies of dreams, ghosts and visions. The handwritten letters and petitions of innocence of the defendants reflect the human toll. Contextual materials such as furniture and other everyday objects help situate the Salem witch trials within the European tradition of witch hunts, which dates back to the 14th century, while suggesting the crucial ways in which this episode diverged. Rare documents from the collection of the New-York Historical, including one of the earliest written accounts of the 1693 trial, are also on display.
The exhibit also features two salvaged projects by contemporary artists who are descendants of the accused, including a dress and accompanying photographs from fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2007 collection, In memory of Elizabeth How, 1692. In creating this collection, based on research into the designer’s ancestor – one of the first women to be convicted and hanged as a witch – McQueen has extracted historic symbols of witchcraft, paganism, religious persecution and Magic. Documents show how Elizabeth How was charged and ultimately convicted in July 1692, adding to the gravity of the creator’s spectacle. Another section presents the series of photographer Frances F. Denny Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America in which powerful portraits challenge the traditional notion of witchcraft by celebrating the spectrum of identities and spiritual practices found in communities of people who identify as witches today. In addition to the photographs, a special sound component allows visitors to listen to the voices of these modern-day witches.
The exhibit concludes with an exhibit that connects the Salem witch trials to modern life by inviting visitors to reflect on the role they believe they play in times of injustice. It also features an immersive experience based on the New-York Historical tarot card collection that invites viewers to imagine what recovery from witchcraft might mean.
The Salem Witch Trials: Calculation and Recovery is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. This exhibit was co-curated by Dan Lipcan, Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library; Paula Richter, curator; and Lydia Gordon; Associate curator. At the New-York Historical, it was coordinated by Anna Danziger Halperin, Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.
On October 24, a curator’s gallery tour, led by Anna Danziger Halperin of New-York Historical, provides an overview of the exhibits. Private group tours can also be arranged throughout the exhibition. Additional programs will be added to the schedule in the coming weeks.
Families can explore The Salem Witch Trials: Calculation and Recovery and its central question – in times of injustice, what role can you play? – with an exhibition guide, costumed interpretation, storytelling, programs in Spanish and a Halloween celebration. Living history programs offer families the opportunity to learn from modern practitioners and make connections between their experiences and those of the falsely accused in 1692. In October, Hablemos, our free bilingual Spanish/English program, explores the stories and traditions of witches. and witchcraft in the Spanish-speaking world. On Sunday, October 30, the Halloween Family Party includes both modern traditions such as scary stories and candy eating, while offering families a chance to reframe and reflect on their understanding of witches. Families can also consider how false accusations and injustice can have a huge impact on people’s lives, both in the past and today. Additional details will be added to the family program schedule.
The Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery exhibits are made possible by Joyce B. Cowin and the New York Historical Women’s History Council. Exhibits at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with support from the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About the New York Historical Society
Discover 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibits, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations between renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s premier museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Patricia D. Klingenstein Museum and Library conveys the stories of the diverse populations of the city and country, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we have become. Always up to the challenge of bringing little or unknown stories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new annex housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help shape the future by documenting the past join New York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Women’s History Center. Digital exhibitions, applications and our For the ages podcast allow visitors from around the world to dive deeper into the story. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or @nyhistory on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, YouTube and Tumblr.