News Column

Peabody Essex Museum severs ties with Gordon College

July 25, 2014

By Neil H. Dempsey, The Salem News, Beverly, Mass.

July 25--SALEM -- The Peabody Essex Museum announced Thursday that it had ended its longstanding collaboration with Gordon College and its museum studies program, saying the school's attitude toward gay and lesbian individuals conflicts with its fundamental values.

The decision was made in light of Gordon's recent request for a religious exemption to an executive order that prohibits federal contracts from being awarded to groups that discriminate based on sexual identity, said Jay Finney, chief marketing officer at the museum.

"It's basically just that simple: we don't believe in discrimination," Finney said. "We regret having to take the step, but we have to maintain our integrity.

"We don't want to do anything that hurts the college or hurts their museum studies program. It's just as simple as not being able to collaborate with an institution whose core values conflict with our own."

The move comes two weeks after Mayor Kim Driscoll canceled Gordon's contract to run the city-owned Old Town Hall, citing the same exemption request, as well the school's policies prohibiting "homosexual practice" among students or employees.

Although that move could be seen as largely symbolic -- the city had planned to resume control of the site come August anyhow -- Finney and Gordon spokesman Rick Sweeney indicated that PEM's decision to discontinue its support could put the school at a disadvantage.

"We are, obviously, a major museum. ... They come in and get a sense of their practices and what a working museum looks like," Finney said. "We were a resource for them. ... It was not a need on our part. It was a need on their part."

From the college's point of view, "it looks like they're taking steps that may impact our opportunities as a college," said Sweeney. "For us, this is a serious matter. We really need to protect the opportunities that our students and faculty will have."

PEM's decision will bring to a halt the informal relationship between the museum and the college, in which students visited en masse a few times a year to flesh out their classroom lessons with tutelage from curators or conservators.

"They're anxious to get any kind of experience inside a museum that they can," Finney said. "We're a natural place for them to want to experience."

An even costlier consequence for the school may be PEM's decision to rescind its support for a recent grant application filed with the National Endowment for the Humanities. If awarded, the grant would be used to fund an expansion of the college's museum studies program. Not only had PEM written a letter recommending that Gordon receive the grant, the museum had advised the school throughout the application process, Finney said.

When first approached, Sweeney said he'd heard that PEM was rescinding its endorsement for the grant, but seemed taken aback to learn that it was ending other collaboration, too.

"That's certainly news to us," he said. "We've been working actively to set up a face-to-face meeting with the museum. ... I'm really hopeful that we'll get a chance to sit down with them."

Saying he hoped the museum wouldn't make any "rash decisions," Sweeney said the two institutions had long enjoyed a "great relationship," and that the school wants to preserve that.

"We'd love an opportunity to sit down and talk through all of their concerns," he said.

But Sweeney also said he thought that recent steps against the college could seem "very retaliatory," though he added, "We fully respect what the mayor felt she needed to do."

"It's very unfortunate and it's unnecessary," Sweeney said. "This is a city that prides itself on tolerance and mutual respect for all people, and these actions aren't consistent with that."

Sweeney said he worries that PEM's move will harm Gordon's students and faculty -- people who "have never been the type to impose their values on anyone else."

Asked about the view that the issue is breeding intolerance of religion, Sweeney said it's "hard not to see it that way." But Finney said it didn't matter to the museum "what kind of rationale they put on it."

"We can't continue to work with them," Finney said. "We don't share the same values."

Although a handful of PEM's 23 current interns are students at Gordon, Finney said they wouldn't be affected by the decision to sever ties, as the museum didn't see them as being as representative of the college as its other components, such as faculty.

PEM and Gordon have collaborated on the museum studies program for at least 15 years.

Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at or via Twitter at @NeilHDempsey.


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Source: Salem News (MA)

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