Salem, MA: Old Objects in a New Setting

Visit the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. If you've lived in the same place for any length of time, you're familiar with the problem. Stuff accumulates and space doesn't. So just imagine if you'd collected paintings, or ship models or furniture for more than 200 years. Where would you put your valuable collections? That was the conundrum challenging the country's oldest continuing museum, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

Founded in 1799, PEM, as it is now called for short, has amassed more than 2.4 million works. These include the most comprehensive collection of Asian export art in the world, the oldest and among the most important Native American, Oceanic and African art collections in the hemisphere, internationally celebrated collections of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and India art and notable collections of photography, works on paper, textiles and costumes, not to mention manuscripts by Nathaniel Hawthorne and other New England authors. The public has never seen many of these treasures. For lack of space, most of the pieces have never been exhibited.

Until now. As the result of a major renovation that created more than 250,000 square feet of new and renovated space, the museum for the first time can exhibit its complete permanent collection of international art and culture from North America, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa. Moreover, on the second level, a 15,000 square foot space is reserved for changing exhibitions.

The critically acclaimed museum design by architect Moshe Safdi pays homage to neighborhood buildings with its use of materials, scale and style. A spectacular glass-roofed atrium with a café captures the spirit of a New England common as a central meeting place. Canvas shades controlling the light are reminiscent of sails on ships that brought back many of the collections.

The museum aims "to break new ground in drawing upon these collections and creating powerful exhibitions that foster understanding across all boundaries of time, geography and culture," says Executive Director and Museum CEO Dan Monroe.

The Yin Yu Tang House, an early 19th century merchant's house recently brought from the Huizhou region of China and reconstructed at the museum, is such a groundbreaking acquisition. The only one of its kind in the United States, the house, complete with furniture, decorative objects and household items-even a photograph of Mao Tse Tung-highlights two centuries of one family's life as well as cultural history in provincial China.

Visitors may tour the house. An interpretive center and an adjacent gallery feature changing exhibits on Chinese culture and art that place the house in a larger context. Viewers will discover that Yin Yu Tang is especially relevant to the Salem experience. It was built at approximately the same time as the Federal-style homes in the museum's collection by sea captains who returned home with many of the Chinese objects.

An audio guide, available with museum admission at no extra charge, encourages visitors to personalize their tour of the museum and to continue their enjoyment of the collections at home. ARTscape(tm), described as a dynamic, multimedia encyclopedia, uses the museum's objects as a launching point for a self-guided journey through art and culture. One feature allows visitors to make their own collections of objects for later exploration at PEM's Web site (

To do this, you first enter the four-digit number on the selected object's label into the audio guide and press enter. Then download the entries by docking the audio guide at one of the ARTscape(tm) stations located throughout the museum. This gives you access to the objects you've chosen, your personal collection, at home or onsite at any of the computers in PEM's media studio.

It is not necessary, however, to visit the museum to access the database. Links on PEM's Web site will lead virtual visitors into ARTscape(tm). The data there includes photos and descriptions of objects, definitions, book excerpts, quotations, video clips and audio clips.

But, of course, nothing replaces the actual museum experience.

Since museum tickets also will get you into PEM's 24 houses, plan to spend a whole day in Salem. This historic North Shore community, famed as a Halloween destination for its witches, has the welcome mat out for summer guests too.

Article provided by Homesteader

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