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By 1799, sailors and supercargoes in the wealthy maritime power of post-Revolutionary Salem needed a place to house and display their global treasures, and thus are the origins of the United States’ oldest continually operating museum. Today it’s known as the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), after the Peabody Museum merged with the Essex Institute in 1992. The merger helped to make downtown Salem an arts destination, boasting one of the largest collections of Native American art in the world. On Saturday, the museum is unveiling a 40,000 square foot expansion that will make it, by some measures, the ninth largest art museum in North America. Unlike many Western institutions, PEM has taken the new wing as an opportunity to honestly reflect on some of its complicated history and unsavory acquisitions.
“We’re sitting on the reality that this was the major city, the evidence of that is all over the place,” says Brian Kennedy, who started his post as the museum’s director and CEO in July. “In the museum, we’re constantly reminded of the number of wharves that projected from the harbor and all the places people went around the world and all that they brought back.”
After the mass hysteria of the Puritan era for which Salem is most famous today, the city became a maritime power and a center for privateering. Sea captains created the East India Marine Society for sailors and supercargoes who had traveled beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. Members of the society were required to bring back "natural and artificial curiosities" from their travels. Twenty-five years later the society built the East India Marine Hall to display some of the nearly 3,000 items they’d acquired, including masks from island kingdoms, paintings and models of local ships, and costumes from around the world.
The structure still stands today, and is the centerpiece from which the elegant expansion emerges. The firm Ennead Architects designed the sleek new wing in harmony with East India Marine Hall — the granite for both were sourced from the same quarry — exemplifying a forward looking institution that’s true to its roots, which are firmly grounded in the city’s past.
Kennedy says that in the last 25 years, the museum has established itself as an international destination for arts and culture, growing alongside the city of Salem. The new wing was designed to open up that history to its visitors, and it doesn’t shy away from the complicated stories that led to the acquisition of some of the museum’s 1.8 million artifacts and art objects. (Their collection is so massive that last year they opened a new collection center in Rowley — not without some outcry about the relocation of objects to another municipality -- to store artifacts not on display.)
Each floor was carefully curated from PEM’s vast collection to create permanent exhibits that each tell a part of the museum’s story. Deputy director Lynda Hartigan says it isn’t meant to be one clear, linear narrative. Instead, each room is designed with multiple points of entry, allowing guests to intuitively flow through the collection at their own pace. Soundscapes emerge in different parts, creating an immersive experience. One moment visitors are at sea, then up the stairs and they're in the dining room of a Scottish nobleman, just returned from years trading in China. The exhibit's walls are covered with wallpaper that he had painted to tell the story of his travels. As visitors interact with it, they'll hear a soundscape of bagpipes and ehrus meant to evoke the hybrid nature of cultural trade.
“The material really speaks to how it is that we engage with our natural environment through travel and entrepreneurship,” says Hartigan, “That is at the heart of what Salem was at the very beginning and has influenced the DNA of of the museum.”
The second floor houses some of the museum’s collection of Asian export art, one of the preeminent such collections in the country. The exhibit celebrates the intersection of travel, commerce and creative expression, without ignoring the less palatable side of this exchange. It provides an honest look at the devastation of the opium trade, which bankrolled the acquisition of many of these works while destroying millions of Chinese and Indian lives. This exploration alludes to the current opiate crisis here in Massachusetts and other parts of the country, which made billions for the Sackler family who have themselves donated to arts institutions around the world.
Even the vibrant and fun fashion and design collection on the top floor, which is sure to draw many visitors to 98-year-old style icon Iris Apfel’s "Rare Bird of Fashion" and PEM’s shoe collection (the largest in the country), doesn’t shy away from complicated and timely controversies. It presents fashions acquired from and influenced by cultures around the world, and explores the line between appreciation and appropriation.
While much of Salem’s tourism is based on the obfuscation and trivialization of its past, this new wing offers a welcome exploration of Western civilization’s complicated relationships to art objects and the societies from which they’re acquired. Nationally we are in a moment of reckoning, and PEM grounds Salem in the center of that discussion.
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