Report on a visit to the Phillips Library as part of the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures Project

In November 2022, Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, Dr Matsuba Ryoko and Yuhan Ji visited the Phillips Library in Rowley, Massachusetts as part of the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures Project.

Home of the Edward Sylvester Morse Archive, the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is a rare book and special collections library. Its expansive holding is made up of the collections of the former Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute, which merged in 1992 to become the Peabody Essex Museum; their respective libraries and archives were combined to form the Phillips Library.

We had the honour to be led by the Library’s Director, Mr Dan Lipcan, on a tour of the storage which combined collections of the Phillips Library and the Peabody Essex Museum. The current collection at the Phillips Library covers a wide range of topics in print and manuscript form. The collection has its roots in the maritime history of Massachusetts – as one of America’s earliest settled areas and a deep-water harbour of international shipping and trade in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the New England area served to connect the country to other parts of the world. Today, the Phillips Library continues with this mission by continuously building a diverse collection that covers cultures worldwide. Mr Lipcan explained that the library has been developing a strength in visual arts – almost 25% of the library’s collection of published books focuses on art due to recent acquisitions and collections placed on deposit, covering subjects as wide as architecture, painting, illustration, design, and decorative arts.

A tour of the Phillips Library Archive Room. Left to right: Dr Matsuba Ryoko, Jennifer Hornsby (PEM), Amanda Fowler (PEM), Dan Lipcan (PEM), Professor Nicole C Rousmaniere, Yuhan Ji.

The Edward Sylvester Morse Archive under focus is one example of how collections at the Phillips Library serve to connect America’s past to cultures around the world. Known as the “father of Japanese archaeology”, Morse left behind an extensive body of documents that attest to his contributions to the areas of malacology, zoology, ethnology, archaeology, and art history. Specifically, the materials consist of diaries, correspondence with friends and family, research files, drawings, lecture notes, publications, scrapbooks, and manuscripts.

A page from Morse’s diary during his stay in Enoshima.

Edward Sylvester Morse was born to Jane Seymour Beckett and Jonathan Kimball Morse on June 18, 1838, in Portland, Maine. As a child, he had a passionate interest in the natural world; in faithfully depicting the nature around him, he showed an outstanding artistic talent. At the age of sixteen, Morse decided that the educational system was unsuitable for him and left school to follow his own interests. With his skill in scientific observation and draughtsmanship, Morse quickly became known in the field of zoology and took on a string of academic positions at the Essex Institute (which later became the Peabody Essex Museum), the American Naturalist Journal, Bowdoin College, and finally Harvard University.

Morse first travelled to Japan in June 1877 to find coastal brachiopods where it was believed thirty or forty varieties existed south of Tokyo in the Sagami Bay. His arrival was warmly welcomed by the Japanese Meiji government, which granted him permission to establish a marine laboratory at Enoshima and offered him the post of the first professor in Zoology at the recently established Tokyo Imperial University, turning his first visit into a three-year stay. Morse actively introduced scientific methodologies to the nascent science community in Meiji Japan, and interestingly, one of his most important discoveries in Japan, the Omori shell midden, was made when Morse looked out of a window on a train between Yokohama and Tokyo. This discovery opened the field of archaeology and anthropology in Japan and shed much light on the material culture of prehistoric Japan.

While Morse’s contribution to the field of archaeology and anthropology in Japan cannot be discounted, what Morse himself saw as bringing ‘development of the European civilisation’ to modernise Japan is an outdated and much-simplified expression from today’s perspective, since the archival materials tell us that cultural exchange did not occur unilaterally. Morse taught in Japan and travelled there later several times becoming deeply interested in Japanese pottery and material culture. He was able to amass an extensive ceramic collection of more than 5,000 items in Japan and in Europe, which was put on loan in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and then later purchased by subscription. Morse was appointed Director of the Peabody Museum in 1880 after moving back to Salem, Massachusetts, and was given the title of Director-Emeritus in 1916. Morse was also appointed Keeper of Japanese Pottery at the MFA, an office he held until his death in 1925.

Dr Ryoko Matsuba at her workstation to digitally record materials from the Edward Sylvester Morse Archive.

With a combination of archival research and digital methods, Professor Rousmaniere hopes to shed light through the Edward Sylvester Morse Papers on the early cultural exchanges between America and Japan. During our two-day pilot workshop in the Phillips Library, we digitally documented thousands of pages from Morse’s diary on his travels and observations. The extensive archival materials provide the opportunity to vividly reconstruct how Morse lived, worked and travelled; in particular, the minutely detailed diaries, which often combine textual documentation with rich hand-drawn illustrations, allow readers to see through his eyes and hand how Morse experienced Japan, as the nation hurriedly moved towards modernity but its daily lifestyle remained strikingly curious to foreign eyes – a street view in Enoshima, a boy dressed in modern clothing and hairstyle, firework celebrations at a matsuri. At a time when the promises of globalisation are challenged by changing events and climates, these materials serve as a reminder of how the past and present realities of cultures worldwide had been, and always are and will be closely intertwined. We hope that this initiative will also contribute to the Phillips Library’s ongoing effort to digitise its valuable materials and make them available to the wider global public.

Yuhan Ji
Sainsbury Institute Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer


Peabody Essex Museum. ‘History of the Phillips Library Collections.’ Accessed 29 January 2023.

Phillips Library Finding Aid. ‘Edward Sylvester Morse Papers, 1858-1953, 1978-1985, 2003.’ Accessed 29 January 2023.