To wrap up my account of a recent visit to the cultural attractions in Salem, Mass., I will think out loud about what made it a good day and what that has to do with marketing Lowell.
First, everyone we encountered was pleasant and helpful, from the parking garage attendant (“I’m glad I moved back to New England”) and the front desk staff at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) to the waiter at Finz restaurant on the waterfront and the guide at the House of the Seven Gables. You got the feeling that these people were used to dealing with tourists and appreciated the visitors. Rosemary and I found our way around the city easily. There are two pamphlets (approx. 5.5 x 9 inches) available everywhere, “Great Stories Begin Here,” Salem’s full-color city guide and free map, and the regional Convention and Visitor Bureau’s “North of Boston” travel guide and map. The marketing tag-line for the city is “Salem: Still Making History,” which is a clever, open-ended slogan that takes the history brand and spins it so that it is forward oriented. They lead with their history but are not limited by it. Maybe our brand should be Historic Lowell. Pick something instead of nothing. We can’t be all things. Try it for ten years, with emotion, with gusto. Let us define the city instead of others who don’t know the complete story or see the full picture. It plays to one of our strong points. The history is a platform for social, economic, educational, and cultural vitality.
The road signs started outside of town. I think the first signs for the Peabody Essex Museum were in downtown Peabody, after the highway sign for the national park on Rte. 128. We got off 128 as soon as possible because of heavy traffic, so we approached Salem through Peabody instead of going further north to Rte. 114, the typical way in. There were a lot of signs along the way directing us to the historic district and attractions.
City Councilor Rita Mercier said, “We need a draw!” a couple of weeks ago when some people gathered at the O’Connors’ house to talk about marketing Lowell. There’s no doubt that the Peabody Essex Museum is a draw for Salem. It’s a big-time museum operation (“…more than 840,000 works of art and culture featuring maritime art and history; American art; Asian, Oceanic, and African art; Asian export art; two large libraries with over 400,000 books, manuscripts, and documents; and 22 historic buildings. Today’s collection has grown to include 1.8 million works….”) Read this about the current museum director:
Dan L. Monroe, The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, has held the top leadership position at the Peabody Essex Museum since 1993. He led the transformation of PEM through the consolidation of two small, venerable museums — the Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute — to one of the largest and most dynamic art museums in the nation. Under his leadership, PEM has increased its operating budget from $3.4 million to $24 million, its endowment from $23 million to more than $300 million, direct attendance from 80,000 to 250,000, and attendance at PEM exhibitions across the nation from zero to more than 500,000.
Monroe has spearheaded two major expansion projects: a 113,000-square-foot addition designed by Moshe Safdie that opened in 2003, and a 175,000-square-foot expansion planned for completion in 2019. During his tenure, the museum has made several thousand acquisitions, valued at more than $70 million. PEM also acquired Yin Yu Tang, the only complete antique Chinese house located outside China, and renovated and restored existing facilities. Staff has increased from 80 to more than 300.
The $650 million comprehensive Campaign Monroe is leading will advance the museum’s mission to celebrate outstanding artistic and cultural creativity in ways that transform people’s lives. The museum has received gifts and pledges totaling more than $570 million during the quiet phase of the Campaign initiated in 2006, a testament to extraordinary philanthropy on the part of remarkable patrons and to exceptional teamwork on the part of the Board of Trustees and the staff Executive Leadership Team. This is the third-largest campaign among North American art museums in the last 20 years. It includes a $350 million addition to the endowment, $200 million for the expansion, and $100 million to support creative new installations of the collection, several infrastructure improvements to existing facilities and other advancement initiatives.
Lowell does have the largest industrial history museum in the national parks system (Boott Cotton Mills Museum) and renowned special events like the Lowell Folk Festival, Lowell Summer Music Series, and Southeast Asian Water Festival as well as a first-rate entertainment and sports arena downtown (Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell) and Red Sox minor-league baseball (Lowell Spinners at LeLacheur Park), and the massive artist complex at Western Avenue, professional theatre at MRT and strong community groups like Greater Lowell Music Theatre, all attractions that I am sure Salem would like to have. Our national park is more extensive than Salem’s (even if it has been there since 1938) and our menu of offerings is more diverse because of the music events and sports (Single A baseball and Hockey East with the best college teams in the country). The question is, Collectively, does Lowell’s line-up match a world-class museum with a $300 million endowment and 300 staff? Salem’s population is 41,000, compared to Lowell’s 106,000-plus. Not everyone likes museums. 250,000 paid admissions at PEM is a figure far lower than Lowell’s annual tourist count. But what is the combined visitation at Whistler House Museum of Art, American Textile History Museum, New England Quilt Museum, National Streetcar Museum, and Boott Mills Museum? Would it make sense to try a Lowell Museums all-access ticket and promote these as a combined experience instead of each one competing for visitors in its own niche? The root idea for the national park was to present Lowell as a museum-without-walls, taking advantage of the historic architecture (now almost completely preserved) and cultural experiences between the canals and rivers. The late Patrick Mogan would say, The buildings are the props around which the story is told. We have the distinctive setting in place now after 40 years. Are we telling the story in the most appealing and compelling ways? And the story isn’t limited to a park ranger informing tourists—it’s really every kind of expression you find in a small city.
From the PEM we followed a red line painted on the sidewalk to the House of the Seven Gables. Salem copied Boston’s Freedom Trail pedestrian path concept. Lowell should do the same thing. And maybe with a twist, with plaques on the buildings or in the pavement that say “Abraham Lincoln walked this way” or “Mark Wahlberg walked this way” to remind people with a little humor that notable people over the years have stepped right where they are stepping. A friend of mine from London suggested that Lowell is missing an opportunity to tell its revival story by not having tasteful plaques on buildings with information about not only the history of the building but also the modern renovation, with credit to owners who did the preservation work for which Lowell has won national awards. It would be another level of “interpretation,” to use a Park Service term, another way for people to follow the Lowell story.
Despite all that Lowell has to offer, we had a sense last week that there was more “there” there in Salem when we visited. The big ship docked at the national park site was impressive to see. The variety of small shops, even the crazy witch-themed places, created a retail buzz. The open-air trolley buses running through downtown showed you there were tourists. We have the real trolleys in Lowell, but the rail lines run on the outskirts of downtown, mostly, except where Dutton St. crosses Merrimack. Last Friday was not a special-events day in Salem, other than a free day at PEM, and there were a lot of people moving around the streets. It would be worth checking to see what it is like on a typical Saturday-Sunday in the summer. These are my thoughts for the moment.