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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.

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Chief Joseph-Nez Perce, 1903
Platinum Print by Edward S. Curtis

John Ward House, ca. 1684

Mwaashambooy Dance Mask, late 19th century, Congo

American Flag Quilt, 1912, Hannah Dustin Burke

 

Current Exhibits at the Peabody Essex Museum

Through Dec. 2: Kenro Izu: Sacred Places
An exhibition of Izu’s stunning photographs of spiritual landmarks in Asia,
the Middle East, and Europe

 November 9 – March 17: The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America
An exhibition featuring Curtis’ photographs of Native Americans made between 1899 and 1906

 Ongoing: Shorelines
An exploration of the relationships between communities and the sea.

 The Peabody Essex Museum is located in East India Square in Salem, MA. The museum is open daily 10am-5pm.  Admissions as follows: Adults $13, Seniors $11, Students $9, Youth (16 and under) and Salem, Mass. residents admitted free. Members admitted free to all sites. For further information, please call 978-745-9500 or visit them online at www.pem.org.

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