Founded in 1799 as the East India Marine Society by a group of Salem-based captains and supercargoes - the people who were in charge of the cargo that a ship carried and who were employed by the owner of the cargo - the Peabody Essex Museum is the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States. Members of the Society were required by the Society's Charter to collect "natural and artificial curiosities" from beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn and as such, the East India Society members brought to Salem "a diverse collection of objects from the northwest coast of America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, India and elsewhere." By 1825, the Society moved into its own building, East India Marine Hall, which today contains the original display cases and some of the very first objects collected.
The Peabody Essex Museum was made up of the merging between the Essex Institute (originally compromised of the Essex Historical Society which was founded in 1821 and celebrated the area’s rich community history, and the Essex County Natural History Society that was founded in 1833 and focused on the county’s natural wonders) and the Peabody Museum of Salem which was originally called the Peabody Academy of Science. Essentially the Essex Institute concentrated on the area in and around Essex County while the Peabody focused on collecting international art and culture. In July of 1992, the two organizations were consolidated to become the Peabody Essex Museum which today contains over one million "works of art and culture featuring maritime art and history; American art; Asian, Oceanic, and African art; Asian export art; two large libraries with over 400,000 books, manuscripts, and documents." In addition the PEM has twenty-four historic American structures and gardens with five buildings designated as National Historic Landmarks and eight others listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the only complete Qing Dynasty house outside China, Yin Yu Tang.
As hard as it is may be to believe, the Peabody Essex Museum in little old Salem, Massachusetts operates the 15th-largest art museum facility in North America which, I think, is probably superior to some of the museums that can be found in bigger cities like New York or Chicago or San Francisco.
Long ago in what now seems like another lifetime, I visited the museum while on a high school field trip to the House of the Seven Gables. At the time it was "just" The Essex Institute but I still remember all of the figureheads and other maritime art that we saw there. Obviously a lot has changed since 1975 but I was quite happy to see that there were still several galleries in the museum that held the figureheads and maritime art that I so fondly remembered.
The first exhibit we went to is one that is very special as it's the very first time any of the objects contained in it have been seen by the public. The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City contains 90 objects of art including murals, paintings, wall coverings, furniture, architectural elements, jades and cloisonné that belonged to one of history's most influential figures - the Qianlong Emperor who reigned over China from 1736-1796. During his reign, the Emperor, who was a connoisseur, scholar and devout Buddhist, was one of the most powerful and richest men in the world and for his retirement he had created a luxurious garden where he could retreat and relax within the Forbidden City. That garden was known as the Qianlong Garden or the Tranquility and Longevity Palace Garden and it was from there came all of the objects in the exhibit.
Not surprisingly photography is not allowed in the exhibit but let me just say that the contents have been meticulously restored and are absolutely beautiful - as one would expect from an Emperor! The exhibit will be closing at the PEM on January 9th as they prepare to move it to its next showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from February 1st to May 1st. If you're in the New York City area and get a chance to see it, I highly recommend that you do and while there, just remember that it made its debut in Salem - I think that most definitely gives the PEM some bragging rights!
Another of the exhibits that Juli told us to be sure to see is called "Figuredhead" by Charles Sandison which is a computer-generated piece of art that is featured in the PEM's original display hall on the second floor of the East India Marine Hall. It's rather hard for me to explain exactly how this particular piece of art "works" so please feel free to read below (this is the information that appears outside of the hall before you go into the exhibit) or click on this link which will also tell you more about it.
I took pictures of the exhibit as best I could and hopefully it will give you a bit of an idea of what it looks like ... sort of ... though you really have to be there in person to get the full effect of the words and pictures swirling around the great hall.
As I said, the pictures really don't do the exhibit justice and even though there are videos to be found out there on the internet as well as a couple that the girls took while we were there, they don't really give you a good feel for it either. It's best viewed in person from one of those chairs that are set up around the room as that way you can sit and watch the words and pictures dissolve and reform as the Salem weather takes them where they will. The only thing that I didn't like about the exhibition, which will be at the PEM through April 24th, 2011, is that I couldn't really see the beautiful figureheads that I had liked so much when I was a teenager - obviously they were still there but it's really quite dark in the hall while the exhibition is exhibiting - but that just means I'll have to take another trip to the museum after the exhibit is done. Darn the luck!
For those who will probably never get a chance to go to the Peabody Essex Museum, I'd like to post some pictures from other galleries of the museum. Obviously some galleries prohibit photography but most galleries allowed it as long as you didn't use a flash. Here then are a few of my favorite things from the PEM starting with the Japanese Art Gallery and Asian Export Art on the Second Level:
|Shishigashira (Head for Lion) - 1645|
|Amida, Buddha of the Western Paradise on a Lotus Blossom, 12th Century|
|Koi soup tureens|
|Moon Bed (Chinese marriage bed), circa 1870-1880|
|Silver and Wood Ships|
Also on the second level was this piece from the Contemporary Indian Art Gallery -
- and the American Art Gallery -
|"Island Bride" by Brian White, 2002|
Or that just looked cool!
In the Maritime Art Gallery I found another of my favorite things - a replica of the Minot Ledge Lighthouse. The real one is located in the southeastern part of Boston Bay and has quite an interesting history but I won't go into that here!
On our way back out to the atrium area the girls posed with the museum's giant Foo Dogs or more accurately, Chinese Guardian Lions - we Westerners like to mess up what others call things from time to time!
In the atrium across from the cafe is a piece called "Halo"
that looks like this when you stand in front of it -
Our last stop in the museum was another section of Maritime and American Art that I insisted we take a quick turn through as I had a feeling it contained some of the things that I remembered from my 1975 visit and it definitely did as there were more figureheads there, though they were of a smaller nature than those in the East India Hall -
There was also a very nice - and very large - replica of the HMS Queen Elizabeth which was most definitely one of the grand dames of cruise ships!
There was a lot of the museum that we didn't get a chance to see - including the replica of the Chinese House - but all in all, Amanda and Jamie and I got to see a lot of the Peabody Essex Museum and we thoroughly enjoyed it all. It's most definitely a museum that I'd like to go to again as one of the things I really liked was the fact that I wasn't fighting crowds to see things like you do whenever you go to a museum in New York City. Plus, the PEM has the kind of art that I can understand and appreciate rather than stand there and think "HUH?" while I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is! Oh, and next visit I'm definitely going to tour some of those twenty-four historic houses - that's definitely on the list!
A very big thank you to Juli Lederhaus and the Hawthorne Hotel for giving us the chance to see the wonderful objects that the PEM has to offer; the girls and I really appreciate it!