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The Peabody Essex Museum: Redefining the American Museum for 200 Years

The Peabody Essex Museum: Redefining the American Museum for 200 Years – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – November 2001

By Adam Halterman

Museums have been vital American institutions since the birth of this country. The past 200 years have brought exponential growth to the diversity and sheer number of museums, transforming them from isolated outposts of cultural preservation to common weekend destinations encompassing everything from art and history, to wildlife and popular culture. In today’s society, where technological interface effortlessly crosses geographical and cultural boundaries, what is the museum’s role? In a time when philosophers are grappling with New Museology, attempting to define the museum as an agent for social improvement, where does luxury give way to obligation? What does society demand of its museums, and museums of society? In the midst of constant social flux and coexisting multicultural definitions of world, country, and community, how can an institution, truly, be a museum for our times?

These questions don’t simply concern museum mission statements, they, in the case of historical/cultural museums such as the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, concern, in a larger sense, how a given culture defines its place, both geographically and historically. The Peabody Essex Museum has experienced firsthand the challenges that the last 200 years have brought and, throughout its history, has always succeeded in being a museum for its times, whatever time that may be.

The oldest ongoing museum in the United States, it was founded in 1799 by Salem merchants who had made contact with the East, effectively revolutionizing New England trade and opening the doors for Asian exports which would figure so prominently in 19th century American markets and pave the way for the global economy as we know it. In an amazing moment of foresight these men hatched a vision which would foreshadow modern approaches to multicultural education. In order for burgeoning globalism to flourish, they reasoned, it was crucial that Americans learned about and appreciated cultures other than their own. It seems simple enough today, but 200 years ago the very idea turned the contemporary approach to foreign culture on its head. This came in a time when, in efforts to maintain a Eurocentric cultural (and physiological) hierarchy, foreign specimens (both human and material) were touted as freakish curiosities. To establish a museum which treated Asian and Pacific cultures with respect and appreciation was truly revolutionary.

It is not surprising, then, that the museum, with its Eastern inspiration, maintains the world’s most comprehensive collection of Asian exports. The focus of the museum’s presentation of these artifacts is the interplay between Eastern and Western traditions they reveal. It is fascinating to see the Asian approach to craftsmanship, in terms of design details and decorative motifs, combined with traditionally western styles of furniture, porcelain and silver. The effect is a deepened understanding of mutual cultural interaction, as opposed to the over-simplified and false dominance/submission understanding of global exchange.

This was a time when Eastern influence was starting to enter Western design on a recognizable level. Asian works had previously lent an exotic touch to the collections of America’s upper crust, but now mass produced Eastern exports were finding their way into the homes of everyday middle class Americans. A minor craze was sparked, and by the end of the first quarter of the 19th century a number of English and American manufacturers were producing cheaper copies of Chinese and Japanese wares. It was now common to find dinnerware boasting Eastern scenes and patterns gracing the tables of New England farm houses. Within this is not just a story of evolving manufacturing practices, but of the spread of cultural awareness. American farmers of English stock were now responding to and appreciating the fine points of Asian design.

Equally stunning is the Asian Art and Culture Collections. Japanese, Korean, India, Himalayan, and Chinese works come together to portray, geographically and historically, Asia’s wonders and complexities. From high art to common objects, the collection encompasses Asia’s highly-visible artistic legacy as well as its “secret” history, that of everyday people. These collections are internationally recognized as some of the best in the United States, the Korean collection being the only foreign collection to be exhibited at the National Museum in Seoul.

Alongside these towering collections, the Peabody Essex Museum has amassed impressive artifacts from Africa and the Pacific. These include works from coastal East and West Africa, Zulu arts, classical Egyptian art (the first to be publicly exhibited at an American museum), Ethiopian Christian art, and more than 20,000 objects from Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia.

The importance of these collections, along with the Asian collections, is tremendous. Not surprisingly, they serve the same purpose as 200 yeas ago, only now they are even more crucial. In the context of modern globalism, as mega corporations infiltrate all hemispheres, micro cultures come under attack. As we rapidly move towards what economists call “McWorld,” cultures all over Asia, Africa, and South America, cultures which are centuries and millennia old, are destroyed. While some write this off as being all in the name of progress and products, cultural extinction is a very real phenomenon. World culture is under attack, but the Peabody Essex Museum is waging its own silent war. Now more than ever, institutions such as the Peabody Essex must strive, in promoting world culture, to change our collective values, placing culture above market and reinventing globalism. This museum, though it houses artifacts centuries old, is not about the preservation of a dead world, but rather the promotion of a vital, living one.

While all this would certainly be enough to qualify the Peabody Essex as one of the country’s most important museums, visitors don’t just find wonders from overseas here. The museum also encompasses our own history and culture, in both a local and panoramic sense.

Though it is the infamous witch trials which have made Salem a modern icon and draw most of its tourism, the city plays a much larger role in New England maritime history. In its days as a vital American port, in the 18th and 19th centuries, countless trade ships and privateers departed from Salem shores. Today, Salem still has an important place in the maritime world, but now as its curator. The Peabody Essex Museum’s Maritime Art and History Collection, begun in 1803, is now the finest in America, including ship models, paintings, prints, marine decorative tools, weapons, navigational instruments, and ship and yacht plans. The history behind this collection is truly the glue that binds together the foreign and domestic collections. These artifact’s essence, both the spirit and the fact; the myth and the map, are the raison d’etre of both the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem itself. This is the history that fills the gaps between continents, and the some 50,000 objects in the Maritime Art and History Collection expose all the facets.

In addition to the maritime collection, the Peabody Essex Museum also has extensive collections of American decorative arts, folk art, and costume. Folk art, it can be argued, offers the clearest understanding of America’s cultural past. On today’s market it is prized alongside high art, but really it is a window into the everyday. This is art that common people created and lived with. Though the technique is sometimes unschooled and crude, the overall organic impact of these pieces renders this meaningless, replacing formal training with remarkable sensibilities. Though the pieces often concern larger national events, the story they tell is actually our country’s secret history, that of the everyday lives of people as opposed to the Hegelian history-machine which drives textbook understandings of our past.

The sum of these American collections tell a very complete story of the transformation of European immigrants into Americans and the development of modern American culture, but in no way tells the complete story of America. The bulk of this land’s history is found in the Native American Art Collection. This country’s oldest cultures are, sadly, the most marginalized, relegated to pop culture stereotypes, the names of athletic teams, and the horrid back corner of New Age mysticism. Misunderstood and simplified, the diverse cultures of Native Americans, as well as a history best told in geological time, are absent from many American’s concept of their own country.

Preservation, exposure, and education are the remedy to this. The Peabody Essex Museum’s collection is the oldest ongoing collection of Native American art in the hemisphere, consisting of some 20,000 historic works and 50,000 archaeological works. This is a mind-blowing collection giving the Peabody Essex the potential to become the standard-bearers for a new world-vision no other American museum has yet to achieve.

These folk forms, both American and foreign, have played an immeasurable role in the development of modern art. Over the past century, Western artists have recognized in them a wholly different approach to form and space which overthrew every law of Classical aesthetics. A true revolution occurred as modernist artists broke from a 2,500 year old artistic tradition which dated back to ancient Greece. Though the modernist movement encompassed all aspects of art, literature, philosophy, psychology, and sociological thought, it can largely be traced to the impact of foreign art forms.

Modernism, which thrived during the first half of the twentieth century, had a huge impact on our modern worldview. It is through the lens of modernism that we can truly understand the importance of the impact such collections have had on American culture and psyche. Three major strains of thought led to the West’s sudden fascination with folk forms.

Firstly are the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. In declaring human beings primates no better or worse in the cosmic scheme of things than a field mouse, he complicated the religious concept of man’s origins, place in the world, and very reason for existing. This prompted a long look backwards to man’s earliest cultures in an attempt not only to acknowledge a far different history as a species, but to try and come to grips with some essential human truth which defines us as a species in the wake of the loss of biological hierarchy.

Next is the publication of Fraser’s The Golden Bough, an early twentieth century anthropological study that rooted Christian myth and tradition in pre-Christian rituals and beliefs. This introduced a kind of cultural evolution and a sense of cultural archetypes which spoke to peoples across historical and geographical voids. It made these folk forms, both ancient and contemporary, seem not so foreign.

Lastly are the ideas of Sigmund Freud. While his ideas revolutionized twentieth century man’s concept of self, his impact on how we look at art is rather subtle. Freud redefined man as an internal animal, prompting new concerns with the inner rather than the outer cosmos. Classical art is defined by the external, in the inherently just forms and proportions which mirror the harmony and logic of the working universe. Changing concepts of self which were gradually growing to dominate the Western mind put an emphasis on psychological impact and experience, allowing people to see non-Western and folk art in a very raw way.

Some of the first modernist artists, the true vanguard that broke most dramatically from tradition, got their inspiration from 3,000 year old Cycladic figurines from the Mediterranean. In these radically non-Western renderings of the human form they found more truth than in all of Classical sculpture. Traditional methods of critiquing art fell by the wayside and “Art” itself was redefined.

This is not mere esoterica, but rather a look at the importance that the introduction of these collections of art into our culture has played in redefining both our artistic sensibilities and our self concept.. A look at the collections at the Peabody Essex Museum becomes a kind of dual experience: Appreciating them for their role in twentieth century art and culture as well as experiencing them in a raw, non-intellectual way.

The beauty of the Peabody Essex Museum is the ease with which is allows one to move from the abstract and philosophical to the concrete and local. Like many New England towns which date back deep into our history, Salem is itself a museum. A stroll along its historic wharf and waterfront district is a step back into the past. The buildings alone have many stories to tell. The Peabody Essex Museum holds America’s first collection of historic buildings, consisting of twenty-three historic American structures and an architectural fragment collection. A stroll through this collection of buildings is a walk through 300 years of American architecture. Such beautiful sites as the Quaker Meeting House, the John Ward House, the Andrew Stafford House, the Gilbert Chadwick House, and the East India Marine Hall represent the dominant evolving architectural styles, from Post-Medieval and Georgian, to Greek Revival and Italianate. Also on the museum campus is the beautiful Ropes Garden, a classic Colonial Revival garden and greenhouse.

In addition to a thoughtful sampling of the museum’s splendid collections, visitors can also enjoy Peabody Essex’s special exhibitions. On display through December 2 is Kenro Izu: Sacred Places, a collection of Izu’s photographs of spiritual landmarks in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The exhibition is an amazing glimpse at a photographer at the height of his craft, featuring over sixty meditative and moving pictures.

From November 9, 2001 through March 17, 2002 the museum presents The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America, a survey of Curtis’s legendary photographs made between 1899 and 1906. It is considered one of the finest museum compilations of Curtis prints anywhere.

With collections totaling two and a half million items, only a fraction of the museum’s holdings is accessible by the public. Luckily, the Peabody Essex Museum will enter its third century better able to bring more of its exciting collections to the public. A major expansion is underway, scheduled for completion in 2003. This will bring as whole multitude of changes to the visitor experience. A new gallery wing will be added, allowing more works to be pulled out of dark-storage and brought to light. A new park will be opened, offering museum visitors and Salem residents a place for a pleasant stroll. In fact, the whole campus will be given a striking new look and feel with the modern style of the facility’s new architecture.

This dramatic expansion demonstrates how the Peabody Essex Museum strives to meet its role in the immediate community and society at large while also pushing us as a people to meet the demands the museum’s collections and history place on us.

In a sense, the history of the Peabody Essex Museum and its current expansion project hearkens back to the ideals of the late 19th century American Renaissance, which strove to improve the decaying cores of American cities by re-imagining urban space, filling it with parks, libraries, museums, and beautiful architecture. Though commendable, this movement failed, in part because it indirectly led to our modern wrecking ball approach to urban renewal, and mainly because its goal was to save the lower class by indoctrinating it with white, upper class values and ethos. But the museum proved 200 years ago that it was beyond such racism and classism, believing instead, as it moves into the 21st century, that society can be bettered simply with exposure to the myriad possibilities of human culture; that to truly be a museum for our times it must speak to all people, about its place in those times and theirs. In these times of new globalism and international concerns, and as our own past becomes a foreign country which continues to shape us from beyond the grave, the Peabody Essex Museum has never been more vital.

1 thoughts on “The Peabody Essex Museum: Redefining the American Museum for 200 Years

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