The Smithsonian Is Coming to the Town of Essex With Unique Programming Through October 22

“The Town of Essex, its rich history and present-day way of life will take center stage as The Smithsonian Museum on Main Street, in cooperation with Mass Humanities, rolls into the Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum (EHSSM) and Essex Town Hall from Sept. 10 through Oct. 22.

Essex, once home to prosperous shipbuilding and clamming trades, has grown leaps and bounds since its incorporation in 1819. Over the last several months, EHSSM has worked hand-in-hand with the Smithsonian, Mass Humanities and local partners to create additional exhibitions and programming that ties Essex to the major theme, “Crossroads: Changes in Rural America”.

Throughout the exhibit the “Crossroads” theme will connect the town’s land, community, identity, persistence, and change to evaluate Essex’s past, present and future. Some of the local partners participating include: The Town of Essex, Town of Essex & City of Gloucester Shellfish Constables, Slow River Studio, Manchester Essex Regional High School students, Burnham Boat Building, Maritime Heritage Charters, The Great Marsh Coalition and Salem State University professors and grad students.

“This is such a unique opportunity for us to not only showcase the deep history of our community that many people do not know, but also the immense sense of pride of place we locals have for Essex,” said Executive Director for The Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum KD Montgomery. “While we may be small, a single voice can make a huge impact on the rest of the community. Whether you’re a regular tourist or are visiting for the first time, our goal is to inspire and educate our guests on just how special Essex was and is currently.” 

The Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum will receive extensive training from the staff of the Smithsonian along with a $10,000 grant from Mass Humanities to develop public events during the exhibit, which will be on display for six weeks. Organizations located in towns with populations of 12,000 or less were eligible to apply. 

“It’s been such an eye-opening experience working with the amazing team at The Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum and we are excited to see the town’s history take on a new life as part of this programming,” said Executive Director of Mass Humanities Brian Boyles. “It has never been more important to embrace and support each and every small community in Massachusetts. We hope with The Smithsonian Museum on Main Street making its rounds, more people will fall in love with these rural outposts like Essex, just as we have.”

From Dungeons & Dragons to clamming education and community conversations, EHSSM will shed light on town’s rich history during The Smithsonian Museum on Main Street Program.

This unique programming includes:

Saturday, Sept. 10: Launch Party – Join us in the Shipyard for a different kind of launch. Coffee, tea and light breakfast snacks provided, as we celebrate the Smithsonian’s debut Essex, MA. Meet program contributors and be the first to tour the exhibits!

Wednesday, Sept. 14: The Color of the Tide – The people of Essex have been harvesting clams since long before the arrival of European Settlers. Through this lecture, guests will find out how the industry has been able to sustain itself for so many years, through regulations and population management. Lessons will include Red Tide and rain closures from local scientists and fishermen and will be led by Rebecca Visnick and William Novak, Gloucester and Essex Shellfish Constables.

Sunday, Sept. 18 & Oct. 16: Sketching Through History – Registration Required. The scenic vistas of Essex have changed very little throughout the years. Guests will get the chance to take a tour through time with Slow River Studio taking historic photos, drawings, and paintings, and sketching them from the same perspective in the modern day. What has changed? What has stayed the same? What emotions are evoked by the historic references? How have those feelings changed? This activation will be led by Jessica Yurwitz.

Thursday, Sept. 22; Thursday, Oct. 6; and Thursday, Oct. 20 – Community Conversations – Registration Required. While it may be just a small town with a population of 3,504, a strong sense of community pulses through all 26 miles of this coastal destination. During these three separate, private focus groups, The Town of Essex will evaluate what cultural institutions mean to the community and how each organization can create a larger impact.

Sunday, Sept. 25: Essex Youth Dungeons & Dragons – For all the “Stranger Things” fans out there, this one may feel like a bit of an “upside down”. Manchester Essex Regional High School faculty will join students for a game of Dungeons and Dragons based on life in small town Essex. Students will explore the culture of Essex and the industries that defined it with a fantastical spin in this game of strategy and chance. The students will create a Game Book, one copy of which will be kept in the town library and available for youth to play, and another copy will be kept in the EHSSM archives as a piece of history. 

Tuesday, Sept. 26: A Legacy Continues, Shipbuilding in Essex – Like many coastal New England towns, Essex has always had its farming, manufacturing, and fishing businesses but shipbuilding was clearly the towns defining industry. While the shipbuilding industry no longer defines the town economically, culturally it is still important to the community to keep the tradition of wooden ship and boat building alive in Essex. Guests will join EHSSM for a conversation with the National Heritage Fellow Harold Burnham and a team of Essex shipwrights who have helped keep the tradition going and are hopeful for its future, which will be led by Harold Burnham, Brad Story, and Jeff Lane. 

Saturday, Oct. 1: What the Hay? Four Centuries of Farming in Essex: Cogswell’s Grant has been a working coastal farm since 1636. During this walking tour, guests will join site manager Kristen Weiss through the fields and down to the salt marsh, learning about the evolving techniques and crops of the families who lived and farmed here over the centuries, and how Historic New England today balances historic agricultural practices with recreation and conservation.

Sunday, Oct. 2: Our Family Forest: Genealogy with EHSSM Historian Kurt Wilhelm – Kurt Wilhelm has collected genealogical information about Essex families for over 30 years. Through this hands-on discussion, guests will have the opportunity to look at the community of Essex through the lens of the families that have lived here, view primary source documents and add their family tree to the forest of Essex.

Tuesday, Oct. 4: A Piece of Something Great, The Story of the Marsh – During this lecture, guests will learn about the Great Marsh and how this important ecosystem has impacted the Essex community throughout history into the present day. The main topic of conversation will be centered on what we can do to preserve this resource for the future and will be led by Peter Phippen, Essex town selectman and member of the Great Marsh Coalition.   

Sunday, Oct. 9: Oral History with Dr. Beth Jay & Graduate Student Mary Larkin from Salem State University: Essex residents are invited to take part in contributing to an oral history project. During the panel that will consist of long standing Essex residents and historians, guests will learn how the residents of Essex work to maintain their rural community in the heart of busy Cape Ann and what life in a small town means to each resident.

Saturday, Oct. 22 -Wrap Party -Celebrate the end of “Crossroads” Essex. The story of our small town is too big to capture in six weeks of programming. We covered as much as possible but are excited to keep exploring. Join us in continuing this conversation into the future as we learn from our past and enjoy our present!Launched in 1994, Museum on Main Street (MoMS) is a Smithsonian outreach program that engages small town audiences and brings revitalized attention to underserved rural communities.  The program partners with state humanities councils like Mass Humanities to bring traveling exhibitions, educational resources and programming to small towns across America.

For more information about each activation, including the times and locations of each, visit

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