By Brad Priest
One of the most powerful things a designed landscape can do is to elicit emotional reactions in its visitors. Often the user response is meant to be positive, as people obviously enjoy spending time outdoors in spaces that make them feel good most of the time. A specific instance where a designed landscape may seek to provoke more earnest emotions, however, is in a memorial. One of the most somber, yet compelling examples of such a space is the Salem Witch Trials Memorial in the (former) village of Salem, Massachusetts. This space is designed not only to perpetuate the memories of the unfortunate men and women who were wrongly accused and executed by their own neighbors for practicing witchcraft so long ago, but also to highlight the concept of injustice and the frightful capabilities of a society swayed by hysteria.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, a collaborative design by artist Maggie Smith and architect James Cutler, is focused on the interpretation of four important concepts related to the atrocities committed on/near the site over three hundred years ago: Silence, Deafness, Persecution, and Memory. The success and significance of the memorial lies in the ways the designers were able to bring these abstract feelings and ideas to life through the use of thoughtful, elegant design interventions.
The concept of silence as it relates to injustice is one of the most upsetting things to contemplate in the context of the events that occurred in the Witch Trials. While there were members of the community that voiced their support for the wrongly accused, an untold amount of others who recognized the immorality of the horrors playing out before their eyes remained quiet.
The designers brought the idea of silence to life by carefully grading the site and arranging the elements such that the original tombstones from the graves of the people involved in the Trials are emphasized as quiet bystanders looking into the memorial. Here the victims and their persecutors sit together with the memorial’s visitors, creating a powerful feeling of quiet reflection.
Smith and Cutler represented the concept of deafness as society choosing to ignore the cries of the falsely accused, achieving this complex task using a very simple yet moving design element. Engraved in flush stone thresholds were carved the victims historical declarations of innocence. The engraved quotes, powerful in their own rights, are arranged such that they disappear mid-sentence beneath the stone walls that frame the memorial. Visitors to the memorial must physically step on/over the protests to enter the space. This of course alludes to society’s willingness to so easily muffle the calls of the innocent.
Representing the concept of persecution in the memorial is a grove of Black Locust trees set in the heart of the site. Said to have been the same type of trees upon which the convicted men and women were hanged, Black Locusts are also noted for their toughness. This adds a dual layer of meaning to the installation, as the victims of the Trials were all tenacious enough to refuse falsely declaring their own guilt, despite the fact that it would have most certainly spared their lives.
One of the primary focal points of the memorial is a stone wall that serves as an enclosure as well as the memorial markers of those executed during the Trials. Their names and methods of execution are engraved on stone slabs that jut out from the main wall, serving as places to sit and contemplate the events and the poor souls’ fates. Much like the stones that make up the wall, these people were just part of the larger community until they were pulled out and put on trial. The memorial wall perfectly symbolizes the way these individuals were ripped from society and elicits a dramatic call to recognize the seeming randomness of their misfortune.