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Sensi Magazine


Aug 30, 2019 09:08PM ● By Stephanie Wilson
It started centuries ago in the 1700s, in fact, when Salem captains and supercargoes who had sailed beyond either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn founded the East India Marine Society. These seafaring individuals procured curio from around the globe during their voyages, bringing them back to Massachusetts where they created a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities” to show off the wares. In modern parlance: they started a museum with art and culture souvenirs they collected while sailing the world.

The society members began amassing a diverse collection of artifacts from Asia, Africa, Oceana, India, and other such places, bringing them back to Salem. And they brought them back to Salem, in Massachusetts’s Essex County. By 1825, the society moved into its own building, East India Marine Hall, putting the objects on dis-play in cases the same cases you can see in the hall today, still showcasing some of the very first things the forward thinking culture-appreciating seafarers brought to the New World, back when it was still so very “new.” (Read: new to Europeans.)

That was almost a century ago, and a lot’s happened since. Long story short: two local Essex Country cultural institutions the historical society and the natural history one merged, consolidating collections and names to become the Essex Institute. The East India Marine Society became the Peabody Academy of Science, named for its benefactor George Peabody. Later, it went with the Peabody Museum of Salem, focusing on collecting international art and culture. Then in 1992, the Essex Institute merged with the Peabody Museum to become Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), a consolidation that resulted in one mega collection: 84,000 works of art and culture artworks, books, manuscripts, documents, and historic buildings.

And it’s grown from there. Today, it includes some 1.8 million works spanning 12,000 years of human creativity. Plus Yin Yu Tang, the only complete Qing Dynasty house outside of China. Oh, and a full time neuroscientist on staff. Which is worthy of its own article, but it’s not the focus of this one. It’s just an anecdotal example of the institution’s leading edge mission to curate not just art but information and insight, and to showcase it in a way that facilitates cultural connection and enhanced understanding of the world and of the self.

Sounds heady. But it’s not why you’re reading about the museum this particular issue. This month, the big news is that PEM’s $125 million new wing opens to the public late September. The gallery expansion project adds 40,000 square feet to the museum, 15,000 of which is gallery space with new installations, a light-filled atrium, and a 5,000 square foot garden designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. The massive undertaking bumps PEM up to more than 100,000 square feet making it one of the largest art museums on the continent.

The expansion is the undertaking of Ennead Architects, a New York firm specializing in “transformative architecture for institutions in the public realm.” Translation: The Shanghai Planetarium. The Standard, High Line. American Museum of Natural History, Rose Center for Earth and Space. Carnegie Hall, Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall. William J. Clinton Presidential Center. Just a sampling of Ennead’s notable projects spanning the globe.

Which should give you some perspective about how huge the #newPEM is not just locally or even nationally but globally. Not that worldwide recognition is the goal of the new wing, as PEM executive director and CEO Dan Monroe told Architectural Digest during a preview of the new space this summer: “We have never believed that new buildings are the answer to transforming museums.” They are the answer, however, to the question of where to exhibit a collection that’s outgrown its previously existing space.

Fun fact: the original space, East India Marine Hall, was dedicated by President John Quincy Adams in 1825. So it’s always had some national significance. Today, that’s recognized with the National Historic Landmark designation, which honors its locally sourced Chelmsford granite exterior. The new wing is connected to original hall, both physically (linking to existing galleries) and conceptually, as Ennead focused on ensuring continuity in designs. One way they did so is by sourcing granite from the same quarry that provided the stone facade in 1825.

This month, PEM unveils its new wing and galleries, installations, and collection based art experiences. On the first floor, the Maritime Art and History gallery “frames the sea as an enduring source of opportunity as well as peril, a force that inspires creativity and innovation, and encourages engagement with the wider world,” in museum parlance. Think: 17th-century Maori paddle. A candlestick from 1803, when Rhode Island native James Drown carved notches in the wax to mark the long days.

The second floor is home to the Asian Export Art collection focussing on cross-cultural exchange as a catalyst for creativity, illuminating the complexities of globalism as an age-old dynamic. The installation also examines the effect of the opium trade and how it contributed to today’s opioid crisis.

On the third floor, PEM’s Fashion & Design gallery “invites visitors to consider that we are designing creatures who continually manipulate, respond to, and mold our changing world.” Prominent fashion icon Iris Apfel artist, designer, model has bestowed complete ensembles and hundreds of separates from her and her late husband’s wardrobe, a selection of which comprises the Rare Bird of Fashion collection celebrating Apfel’s inventive styling traits.

Elsewhere in the museum, two contemporary artists have created original artworks responding to PEM’s collection. Vanessa Platacis is the creative force behind Taking Place, a landscape of paintings created with 210 canvas stencils all drawn and cut by hand. For the site-specific Figurehead 2.0 exhibit, Scottish visual artist Charles Sandison creates an immersive digital environment with a responsive code based on patterns observed in nature.

In total, the museum is set to open 13 new gallery installations and exhibitions by the end of this month, with a whole lot more to come over the next few years, including a Meditation Gallery and a new gallery reinterpreting the 200 year old Yin Yu Tang house from China’s Huizou region, brought to Salem and reconstructed on PEM grounds.

But before all that, PEM will celebrate the completion of this component of its $650 million Connect Campaign. The annual PEM Gala & Art Party kicks off the festivities on September 21, the gala and auction portion of the evening is sold out, but the Art Party is not, and tickets are remarkably reasonably priced for such a lavish, landmark occasion. Non-members: $175, and that includes all the gourmet bites and drink you’ll need to fuel your explorations and art experiences.

The museum opens to the public September 29, and admission is free that day. So if crowds aren’t your thing, maybe hold off a few weeks. Whenever you do go, you’ll find an art institution that’s among the world’s most dynamic and progressive not to mention is the world’s largest art museum destinations located outside a major urban center. But not too far it’s just 30 minutes or so. Make the trip.