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 ďMcWorld,Ē 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 countryís most important museums, visitors donít 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 Museumís 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 artifactís essence, both the spirit and the fact; the myth and the map, are the raison díÍtre 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 Americaís cultural past. On todayís 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 countryís 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 landís history is found in the Native American Art Collection. This countryís 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 Americanís concept of their own country.
Preservation, exposure, and education are the remedy to this. The Peabody Essex Museumís 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 Westís 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 manís origins, place in the world, and very reason for existing. This prompted a long look backwards to manís 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 Fraserís 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 manís 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 ďArtĒ 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 Americaís 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 museumís splendid collections, visitors can also enjoy Peabody Essexís special exhibitions. On display through December 2 is Kenro Izu: Sacred Places, a collection of Izuís 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 Curtisís 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 museumís 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 facilityís 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 museumís 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.
East India Hall, built 1825, National Historic Landmark
Interior of the
1804. One of the Museum's many off-site properties restored and open