Salem, Massachusetts is best known for the Salem Witch trials that occurred in 1692. The city does have a witchy-theme, but that’s not all there is to Salem. Salem has plenty of other non-witch related places to see, one such is…
Peabody Essex Museum, located in Salem, Massachusetts
The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm; every third Thursday of the month, the museum is open till 9pm. Admission to the museum is $20, and an additional $5 for Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese House. If you are already in Salem, the best way to get to the museum is by walking there. If you are traveling from outside of Salem, getting to the museum by car would be the best option; the museum doesn’t have its own parking lot, but there are various lots with relatively cheap rates nearby. The PEM is located in the tourist section of Salem, so there are plenty of other things to do within walking distance to make it a fun and worthwhile day trip.
The Peabody Essex Museum consists of three floors of art, and visitors can go about however they like, as there isn’t a set route to take. My main reason to visit the museum was to see the Chinese house, thus I paid the extra amount and started there first. Yin Yu Tang was built around 1800 in southeastern China, and was inhabited by eight generations of the Huang family. It was dismantled and reassembled at the PEM, and is presented as it was last inhabited in the 1980s so that visitors can learn about the architecture and culture of China. The house is two stories tall, and is decorated with a variety of objects that are original to the house that show how the Chinese lived. Yin Yu Tang has a no photography policy (thus no photos), but it comes with an audio guide for visitors to listen to as they explore to better understand the house and the decorations. Yin Yu Tang is significantly different from western style houses, and it’s worth the extra money and time to take a look.
The first exhibit that I visited after Yin Yu Tang was on Chinese art, “Double Happiness: Celebration in Chinese Art”. The exhibit highlights the role art played in special occasions, such as seasonal festivals, religious ceremonies, birthdays, weddings, and the remembrance of the dead. The various items on display allow visitors to get a glimpse of life in China. Following is an exhibit on Native American Art, “Raven’s Many Gifts: Native Art of the Northwest Coast”. The exhibit contains art from the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast that was made throughout the past 200 years.
“Asian Export Art: China” is located in three different rooms and all focus on porcelain. Porcelain is a ceramic material that resembles a shell’s translucent surface; porcelain making originated in China, and thus was heavily exported by the Chinese. The three different exhibits all feature a variety of porcelain objects, from figurines to vases to plates and bowls.
The Art and Nature Center is split into two exhibits: a permanent exhibit and a special rotating exhibit. In the permanent exhibit, visitors can see birds, fish, and mammals that are found in nature; very similar to exhibits that one sees at natural history museums. (I haven’t really thought about it, but the stuffed animals we see at natural history museums are a work of art; someone has to make the animals and the displays). The rotating exhibit was “Sizing It Up: Scale in Nature and Art”, which was on view from October 10,2015 to September 18, 2016. This exhibit focused on art that explores size and proportion, and has some interactive elements to engage visitors. I don’t really get contemporary art (or art in general), but I particularly liked the pieces where the artists manipulated everyday small objects to be larger than life, such as the donut piece above(third row left); it’s odd, but interesting.
Moving on to the second floor is the “East India Marine Hall” that commemorates the members of the East India Marine Society, who were among the first Americans to bring back art from their travels. The exhibit features a variety of cultural objects, paintings and portraits of the members of the society. Following is an exhibit on American art, “American Art: Traditions Transformed”. The pieces featured in this exhibit are made using numerous different types of material, and are for domestic purposes with innovative twists. “Intersections: Anila Quayyum Agha” is another special rotating exhibition that is on view until October 16, 2016. The exhibit, which is inspired by traditional Islamic architecture motif, contains a single lantern that lights up the room in a geometric pattern that is quite beautiful to behold.
Continuing on the second floor is “Japan on the Move”, an exhibit that features Japanese art from 3000 years ago to the present. In addition to figurines and paintings, the exhibit also contains a small collection of Japanese ceramics. There are two additional “Asian Export Art: China” exhibits on the second floor. The first of the two focuses on silver. China actually traded items for the silver, and then turned the raw material into a more refined form, silverware, that was then exported back to Europe. China had skilled silversmiths that copied Western pieces to exact likeness, but for a fraction of what it would cost to produce in Europe. (The beginnings of outsourcing to Asian countries?) The other exhibit focuses on other types of exported items, such as furniture, paintings, and decorative objects (it has a no photography policy, thus no photos; the exhibit is small and can be easily missed if you don’t look for it.)
“Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age” was a special rotating exhibit that the museum had on view from February 27, 2016 to June 5, 2016. The exhibit explored the impact that Asian luxuries had on Dutch art and life in the 17th century. The exhibit was separated into several galleries with different themes that highlighted the influence the Asian amenities had. A variety of different objects, ranging from paintings to books to textiles to furniture, were on view.
First up on the third floor is an Indian art exhibit, “MegaCity: India’s Culture of the Streets”, which contains several vibrant paintings. There is also an “Asian Export Art: Japan” that focuses on porcelain and lacquer from Japan. Ceramics from Japan were only accessible to Europeans through trade with the Chinese or Dutch due to Japan’s self-imposed policy of isolation because of the rapid spread of Christianity in Japan.
Finishing out the third floor was the special rotating exhibition, “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture”, which was on view from May 14, 2016 to September 5, 2016. Auguste Rodin is such a celebrated sculptor due to his ability to capture the emotional and psychological complexities of human beings. The exhibit had a variety of iconic sculptures and works in progress, and also live performers (not sure what they were doing, they seemed to be dancing). Visitors were able to see replicas of Rodin’s most famous works, such as “The Thinker”, “The Kiss”, and “The Gates of Hell”.
There are two additional exhibits on the first floor, American Art and Maritime Art, that I missed at the beginning. (They are isolated from the others and tucked away, so you might not notice them unless you are looking at the guide map.) The first I saw was on American Art, which all appear to furniture pieces and self portraits. One object that got my attention in this exhibit was the “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” sculpture, which is based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish. Apparently Longfellow’s narrative poem is quite famous as is the sculpture. The Maritime Art exhibit had a variety of ships and paintings relating to the sea on display.
My buddies and I spent about 3 hours at the museum; the Chinese House took about 45 minutes to explore, so if you choose not to see the house, you will need approximately 2 hours to see the museum, but as always, others may take more or less time depending on their interest. I’m not a big fan of art museums and try to avoid them when possible, but the Peabody Essex Museum was pretty exceptional, and well worth the time and money spent there. Art lovers will definitely have a great time at the museum, and the PEM is a good family day idea, as there are some exhibits that are for the younger crowd. When you’ve done all the touristy, witchy things that Salem has to offer, stop by the Peabody Essex Museum and embrace a bit of the high culture in the area.