Alexander McQueen, 1969 -2010. Evening dress (detail), from the In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem, 1692, Ready-to-wear collection, fall/winter 2007. Velvet, glass beads, and satin. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of anonymous donors in London who are friends of Peabody Essex Museum, 2011.44.1. Photo by Bob Packert
On view October 7, 2022 – January 22, 2023
In an episode that has resonated through American culture from colonial times until today, more than 200 residents of Salem, Massachusetts, were accused of witchcraft in 1692-93. The trials led to the executions of 20 people, most of them women, and the deaths in prison of at least five more. The last of the accused, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., was officially cleared of charges in July 2022.
This fall, the New-York Historical Society reexamines this defining moment in American history and considers from a contemporary viewpoint how mass hysteria can lead to fatal injustice in the exhibition The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. On view October 7, 2022 – January 22, 2023 in 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 New-York Historical by its Center for Women’s History, which unearths the lives and legacies of women who have shaped and continue to shape the American experience.
“Countless scholars and authors from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Arthur Miller have kept alive the memory and meanings of the Salem witch trials—but this critical turning point in American history has never before been seen as it is in The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “We are proud to present this extraordinary exhibition through our Center for Women’s History, exemplifying the Center’s mission to rethink familiar chapters of the past and deepen our understanding of them. We hope our visitors will come away with a new perspective on these terrible events from more than 300 years ago and what they still mean for us now.”
“The Salem witch trials have become a rhetorical shorthand in contemporary discourse, but the actual historical events are frequently overlooked,” said Dan Lipcan, PEM’s Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library, along with Curator Paula Richter and Associate Curator Lydia Gordon. “When we conceived of this exhibition, we set out to provide a framework for a modern-day audience to reckon with what this chapter of history meant for the development of this country, and what it says about the potential within each of us. We want visitors to feel the continuing impact of the Salem witch trials, to consider what it says about race and gender, and to think about how they themselves might react to similar moments of widespread injustice.”
The exhibition opens with historical artifacts, rare documents, and contemporaneous accounts, which include testimony about dreams, ghosts, and visions. Handwritten letters and petitions of innocence from the accused convey the human toll. Contextual materials such as furniture and other everyday items help to locate the Salem witch trials within the European tradition of witch hunts, which date back to the 14th century, while suggesting the crucial ways this episode diverged. Rare documents from New-York Historical’s collection, including one of the first written accounts of the trial from 1693, are also on view.
The exhibition also features two reclamation 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, which was based on research into the designer’s ancestor—one of the first women to be condemned and hanged as a witch—McQueen mined historical symbols of witchcraft, paganism, religious persecution, and magic. Documents show how Elizabeth How was accused and ultimately condemned in July 1692, adding to the gravity of the designer’s show. Another section showcases photographer Frances F. Denny’s series Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America in which powerful portraits challenge the traditional notion of witchery by celebrating the spectrum of identities and spiritual practices found in communities of people who identify as witches today. As a complement to the photographs, a special audio component allows visitors to listen to the voices of these present-day witches.
The exhibition concludes with a display that connects the Salem witch trials to modern life by inviting visitors to reflect on what role they believe they would play in moments of injustice. It also features an immersive experience based on New-York Historical’s collection of tarot cards that prompts viewers to imagine what reclaiming witchcraft might mean.
The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. This exhibition was co-curated by Dan Lipcan, the Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library; Paula Richter, Curator; and Lydia Gordon; Associate Curator. At 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 New-York Historical’s Anna Danziger Halperin, provides insights into the objects on view. Private group tours can also be arranged throughout the exhibition’s run. Additional programs will be added to the calendar in the coming weeks.
Families can explore The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming and its central question—in moments of injustice, what role can you play?—with an exhibition guide, costumed interpretation, storytelling, Spanish language programs, and a Halloween celebration. Living History programs offer families the opportunity to learn from modern day practitioners and make connections between their experiences and those of the falsely accused in 1692. In the month of October, Hablemos, our free bilingual Spanish/English program, explores stories and traditions of witches and witchcraft in the Spanish-speaking world. On Sunday, October 30, the Halloween Family Party includes both modern day traditions such as spooky stories and candy eating, while also providing families with a chance to reframe and reckon with their understanding of witches. Families can also consider how false accusations and injustice can greatly impact people’s lives both in the past and today. Additional details will be added to the Family Program calendar.
Exhibitions in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery are made possible by Joyce B. Cowin and New-York Historical’s Women’s History Council. Exhibitions 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 the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About the New-York Historical Society
Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories 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 forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.