Salem

 

Upon our arrival in Salem, we first had the opportunity to have a great italo-american brunch. Professor Harrington then led us to the harbor, where she explained us the interest of the excursion. Although Salem got its name from “shalom” and although it was conceived as a new Jerusalem, it has not always been a “city of peace and tolerance” given its importance in colonial trade and in the witch trials.


From its founding in 1626 through the late 19th century, Salem looked to the sea for its livelihood. The city’s peak years came between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, when Salem’s shipbuilders, merchants and mariners opened new ports of trade for America in Asia and other parts of the world. The wealth they created boosted the economy of the new nation and Salem the sixth largest city in America in 1790 (Salem contributed for 10% of the nationwide earned taxes).


The city’s wealth was due to the business with England’s colonies. Salem ships opened numerous foreign ports, returning home with luxury items such as spices, tea and silk. In 1801 alone, 212 ships entered the harbor, bringing in trade goods from around the world. Many townspeople profited from Salem’s trading. Skilled workers and merchants built and supplied ships, many young men became sailors, customs officials were employed to regulate trade, and residents invested in the voyages. This fruitful period ended with War of 1812, which devastated Salem trade – a decline which reiterated at the end of the 19th century, when its natural harbor’s waters became too shallow to host the bigger ships. Amin noticed that Hamburg faced the same problem of shallowness, but it could be resolved with the dredging of a canal.


Silvia who currently studies Ecology had a closer look at the tidelands and explained to Alessandro and Edward that the same fauna and flora could be found in Brittany. The cirripedes for instance, crustaceans recognizable to their peculiar morphology, live tight on a rock as molluscs do, but they belong to the same family as crabs and shrimps. Cuvier thought that they were molluscs, but Darwin who studied them extensively in a monography showed that in the larval, they are closer to molluscs, so he revised the classification. Silvia could here exemplify a typical evolutionist method: to prefer an embryo-based comparison to the observation of functional analogies.
To stay within the animal kingdom, we noticed how seagulls dropped their prey from around 60 feet high, in order to break the mollusc’s shell. It could appear that a seagull uses gravity, before knowing the scientific rule, to produce an effect in the world, like mankind used a steam machine before having formulated the thermodynamic principles. We joked about it, but we more seriously mentioned Dominique Lestel’s work on animal tools and his concept of technical mediation, which permits to describe the many ways animals transform their world with techniques and objects.


We then proceeded to Peabody-Essex museum, which is indeed the oldest continuously operating American museum. Originally named the East India Marine Society, it was founded in 1799 by a group of Salem-based captains and business agents who circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope or the Cape Horn, to establish a collection of natural and artificial curiosities from around the world, but unlike many European “cabinets de curiosités”, it had a scientific dimension.

The first item our guide had selected, was the so-called skinny penguin. Its unnaturally thin silhouette and especially the neck, is due to the fact that the taxidermist who stuffed it, had never seen a penguin before and he operated according to the physiology of the nautical birds that he knew and which had indeed a slender neck like the duck or swan. It was remindful to us of last year’s production, during the winter school in Paris, of a movie on animal representation.


We then turned to Nathaniel Bowditch’s portrait. His work in astronomy infirmed more than 8000 calculations British astronomers did and his system of navigation is still used nowadays by the American Navy.

Our guide suggested an experiment: will we be able to intuit the nautical instruments’ functioning? We were facing sextants, astrolabes, Davis quadrants and a navigator traverse board, and nobody was really able to find out how these instruments were used. The guide drew our attention to the numerous and fine ornaments and that the instruments had also an aesthetic value, which made us think of the classical distinction between arts and crafts. In addition, these instruments enabled the navigator to determine the latitude but there was no instrument available for the longitude.


We then had a look at ships models, which were used in the design and construction of ships. Whereas computer-assisted design is nowadays essential, ships had to be conceived with the help of miniatures that were at the same time models and samples. Although the bending of wood was possible under the action of steam, naturally curved wood was sought after as it was stronger. The models furthermore were a pedagogic mean for the tradition of knowledge – they are a tale of present knowledge as maps are, one of which we then studied.


It was a 1698 Japanese map of the world, that has been drawn entirely through oral history and shared knowledge – the cartographer indeed never travelled himself!


The above shown painting is of interest for the understanding of the Japanese representation of America. Professor Girel noticed that it could remind us of Nelson Goodman’s concept of “cross-referential citation” in Ways of Worldmaking, because the Japanese style yet remains visible in the American characters.


As a final address, the guide emphasized the importance of action and experience in the process of knowledge tradition. From the copying of manuscripts to the tradition of secular techniques (comme la camera obscura de Robin, jawohl!), there are many ways to transmit human knowledge.


This visit has been very enriching. We then moved to Salem’s other historical highlight: the witch trials. We experienced (some say it could become our main topic, the experience, so let us use the verb) a show at the Salem Witch Museum about the witch trials which took place in Salem in 1692 and caused the hanging of 19 innocent people. At the beginning of the show, the recorded voice announced a most “historically accurate” tale of these events, the orientation towards entertainment and the tableaux vivants’ clumsy realism occasionally raised a smile. After the show, we were guided through a history of paganism and how witchcraft took its roots in paganism, which was persecuted for being heretic – a belief that is nowadays well accepted in American society.

Robin Buchholz and Jim Gabaret

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