Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA

pem view The Peabody Essex Museum reminded me of the New-York Historical Society. I wrote my grad school thesis of the N-YHS and its changing mission statement over the centuries from its founding in 1804. It has a collection of a billion items. Like a separate Smithsonian, it has tried to be something to everyone over the years, with limited success.
The PEM is an amalgamation of local history museums and institutes including the Essex Historical Society, Essex Natural History Society, and the East India Marine Society. Like N-YHS, much of the collection does not have a strict historical focus. There is natural history included (fossils and other things picked up on boats) and so very much imported china.
At the same time, the museum and its curators are trying to stay current and attract visitors with special exhibits. Currently there are some gorgeous contemporary tintypes of surfers by Joni Sternbach. And I especially liked the contemporary Indian art exhibit, ReVisions. These sit uneasily beside rooms and rooms of china and boat models. The building is huge and exhausting. I would have been happy with one room of local history, two rooms of Asian art, zero rooms of china and one room of special exhibits. But the attempt to be a “world class” museum worth $20 a visit, and the accommodation of the vast collections gifted by worthy locals and their families, makes this museum too much of everything. I will return to see the Chinese house and special exhibits, but I’ll skip the other halls.

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Author: Emily

Writer/ Librarian

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