Smack-dab in the middle of Salem, Massachusetts ~ a historic waterfront community teeming with the infamous accounting of 1692’s witch trials, unique ghost haunts, stunning architecture and easy access to all sorts of public transportation ~ there sits a museum.
Located on 161 Essex Street, it’s walk-able from any of the typical attractions people come to Salem for. Except, The Peabody Essex Museum is anything but that.
Salem is also known for its’ rich, vibrant maritime footprint. Once you pass through the front doors of this magnificent structure, you’re in for a real treat.
East India Marine Hall
Peabody Essex Museum has a long lifeline – tracing back to 1799 – when the East India Marine Society was founded. This society was comprised of sea captains from Salem and supercargoes who’d made it beyond the Cape of Good Hope and/or Cape Horn, then back to home port again.
It’s hard to imagine what life was like so many years ago – or to think that a society might scour the earth – in search of such a well-rounded, diverse collection of items to bring back to America. These artifacts were from all corners of the globe, gifted to Salem, and what would soon become known as The East India Marine Hall, 1825.
Exploring the Peabody Essex Museum
The atrium is quite breath-taking. There’s tons of open, airy space under vaulted glass ceilings, allowing in plenty of natural sunlight. And, no matter which direction you choose to turn your head and steal a glance, an inviting walkway beckons into the gallery beyond.
There are rooms filled with paintings, sculptures, textiles, decorative items, photographs, drawings and so much culture ~ seemingly from every country on the planet. When I finally catch my breath and think to ask how many works PEM houses, the answer’s astounding.
“1.8 million.” comes the confident reply. Ummmm, OK.
What impresses me most during my afternoon visit is feeling like I’m stepping into an experience, rather than a museum. Each collection draws me, with fine thread, into the lifestyle and heartbeat of a country and her people.
It happens when I stand near the intricate designs of a Chinese tapestry, and while I muse over a most unique collection of ‘The Seven Deadly Sins.’ I feel its’ pull, while contemplating a wall of exquisite paintings, pieces of shipwrecked furniture, and again, as I learn a bit about Native Art from the Pacific Northwest Coast. Each culture makes me intensely curious, which works like magic to lure me in, losing myself in the moment.
PEM Hosts an Extraordinary Traveling Show
After about five delightful hours, I wander down yet another hallway and see a sign. It’s for a new, traveling show and it is titled W.O.W. ( World of Wearable Art )
It’s actually an annual design competition, hosted by New Zealand for the past 25 years. The premise is to challenge artists to push boundaries, (real or imagined,) between art and fashion. It is New Zealand’s largest, and I think most impressive, art event. The climax is a live runway extravaganza for the winning entries, sure to mesmerize its’ audience of 50,000 fans.
Some of the pieces are quite outlandish, others full of imagination and vivid color. And they’re made from unconventional materials – I recognize wood and aluminum – I’ve no idea what else. But, they’re brilliant! Each one takes my breath away.
PEM happens to be the exclusive U.S. east coast venue for the traveling show and I just happen to be one of the lucky ones visiting while the exhibition is there. It’s both an honor and dazzling surprise, for sure.
Slowing Down, Taking Time
Wandering around this arena is not an option. Everyone stops and studies the craftsmanship of each garment. Long sections of runway are set up under lights throughout the room and each intricately-detailed piece adorns a mannequin. It certainly appears as if these models are ready, willing and able to begin ‘ the walk ‘ on cue.
One’s dressed like a lobster, another a car, yet another is a cupboard full of memories. Some look like aliens, others like Aztec warriors – I spot a scorpion and what looks like a rather large house. I spend long minutes in front of each, wondering about people and what makes them an artist. I think, “ Maybe this.”
Behind a curtain there are rows of comfortable benches. A number of us sit down and watch a short film about W.O.W. And how it came to be. It’s informative and carries deep emotion at the same time. It takes me awhile to move away from the experience.
The Rich History of New England
Of course, I spend a good deal of time in Salem that weekend. I learn about witches and ghost stories, visit restaurants and tea shops. Loving every single thing about this old New England town, I eagerly start to plan my next visit.
When I talk to friends and family though, the first place I speak of is Peabody Essex Museum ~ not witch trials and hysteria, not the quaint little shops where I bought trinkets to bring home ~ not even the charming bed & breakfast just one town over.
Yes, it made that much of an impression on me. And lasting impressions are what I crave ~ they’re food for this traveler’s soul.