New Salem Witch Trials exhibit re-examines the meaning of "witch"

The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts that aims to re-examine and re-contextualize the whole idea of "witches". From the website:

More than 300 years after the Salem witch trials, the personal tragedies and grievous wrongs that occurred still provoke reflection as we continue to reckon with the experiences of those involved. In this exhibition, learn more about factors that fueled the storied crisis, including individuals who rose to defend those unjustly accused, and explore two creative responses by contemporary artists with ancestral links to the trials. Both projects directly speak to the historical trauma evident in the authentic 17th-century documents and objects on view and provide a powerful connection between past and present.

In this exhibition, a multitude of voices will share their personal histories and perspectives, drawn from authentic documents, artist statements, and interviews.

Part of the exhibition is curated by photographer Frances F. Denny, based on her photo book Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America. From an interview with WBUR:

The portraits in the show are a small sampling of those appearing in Denny's book "Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America," published last year, featuring carefully composed photographs of a diverse group of women who are of varying ages, races and backgrounds.

They call themselves neo-pagans, occultists, herbalists, healers and Wiccan high priestesses. Accompanying each of the 13 portraits is a short text explaining how each woman defines what it means to be a witch.


"It felt meaningful and irreconcilable to be descended from both a sort of oppressor figure and the oppressed figure," says Denny. "I started thinking about what I wanted to do with this natural coincidence and how I wanted to address that and have it not really actually be about me, but to make it about the people who have reclaimed this word. I am trying to represent these individuals with respect and dignity and also not trying to explain away all the mystery with the pictures."

The other major part of the exhibition is a new fashion show by avant-garde designer Ashley Rose that was created in honor of one of the first women to be condemned and hanged as a witch during that chaotic time:

The fashion designer Alexander McQueen's Fall/Winter 2007 collection In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1692 was based on research into his ancestor Elizabeth How, one of the first women to be condemned and hanged as a witch in July 1692. McQueen's work reclaims How's power and memory from the false accusation that led to her unjust execution. He also mined historic symbols of witchcraft, paganism, religious persecution, and magic as potent inspiration for his fashion design.

The museum has also put together a new digitized archive of historical documents relating to the witch trials — the largest such collection in the world ("about 550 in total, most of which are on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Court Judicial Archives"): From the museum:

Seeing the handwriting of the accusers and the accused emphasize the human scale of the tragedy. The words of Mary Esty, who was hung in the last group of murders, is written in a careful script, conveying her plea that the court have mercy on others falsely accused: "I petition to your honors, not for my own life, for I know I must die. And my appointed time is set. But the Lord, he knows it is, that if it be possible, no more innocent blood may be shed."

The death warrant for the execution of Bridget Bishop, the first of 19 people to be eventually hanged, is also on view. There are also petitions from the accused, invoices from the jail keeper, direct testimony from accusers and the physical examinations of the accused. Though these light-sensitive materials cannot be displayed year-round, Lipcan says this exhibition is long overdue. "We're presenting the truth and not the cartoon version of the story. These people had emotions and fears just like we do," says Lipcan. "They were innocent and they knew it and there was nothing they could do about it."

If you want to visit the actual exhibit in-person, it runs through March 20, 2022.

The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming [Peabody Essex Museum]

At the Peabody Essex Museum, a new exhibit reclaims what it means to be a 'witch' [Pamela Reynolds / WBUR]