You don’t have to leave New England to take a trip through history around the world. You don’t even have to venture into Boston. All you have to do is spend a day at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and you will feel like you just spent time abroad! On Saturday, Nick and I were in Salem and decided to pay a visit to PEM. I had been there during my days as a Salem State student, but wanted to refresh my memory and see what new exhibitionss they have nowadays.
We arrived and purchased our tickets, $18 each for adults. Student tickets (with I.D.) are $10 each, $15 for seniors, and children 16 or under are free. If you know a high schooler (or are one!), this is actually an awesome educational activity to take advantage of for no cost. I took my younger sister here when she was a teenager and she really enjoyed it. If you’re lucky enough to be a Salem resident, you also have free admission with I.D.
There is a lot to cover at PEM, so we hit the ground floor running. Well, not really running…more like walking quietly. We observed the American Art, Maritime Art and Asian Export Art rooms first. These rooms were Nick’s favorite, as they featured a great deal of model ships and seascape paintings. I love all things nautical, so I enjoyed this area as well. I also liked looking at the paintings of historic figures and reading the descriptions to learn who they were. It was interesting to see the ornate antique furniture and imagine the pieces standing regally in homes of old.
After thoroughly walking around these exhibits, we headed upstairs. The stairs surround a beautiful cafe called the Atrium Café with a variety of foods, snacks and drinks, and tables under enormous skylights that the beautiful late winter sun come sparkling in. PEM also has its own restaurant called the Garden Restaurant with a seasonally-changing menu. We had just come from lunch at the Hawthorne Hotel, so we weren’t hungry but if we were there would have been plenty of options!
Arriving upstairs, there were more galleries focusing on American and Asian/Indian art, as well as Native American art. We were fascinated by it all. We walked around the special exhibition gallery “Someone Else’s Country”, featuring photos by Jo Ractliffe. These photos, taken of the effects of the lengthy Civil War in Angola , were truly moving.
We went back downstairs to the Art and Nature Center and headed into a unique and engaging exhibit called “Branching Out: Trees as Art”. I have also loved learning about and looking at the beauty of trees, and how they differ from place to place. Even driving an hour away, you will encounter trees that were not found in Point A of your destination. On display were various works of art made with a multitude of trees as a medium. There were also interactive areas, which are my favorite parts of any museum. I like to be involved! There were a bunch of small logs tied together, and using some drumstick-like objects, we were able to bang around on the wood and hear the beautiful, tribal sounding music it made. There was a game featuring a board with a tree layout and cute movable characters made of wood. One player reads questions about trees, and if the other answers correctly, they get to move their character to the corresponding color. I won!
In a connecting room, there was an area dedicated to learning about different birds and creatures. There was a spot for “air plants”, which seemingly grow off a base straight into the air, and observers could try drawing these plants in a variety of different ways. Nick and I tried to draw them using the technique in which you look only at the object and not down at your paper. We didn’t do too bad – the plants themselves looked like discombobulated fireworks anyway!
After working on our drawing skills, I wanted to go back upstairs to what had been (and still is!) my favorite part of the PEM, the East India Marine Hall. According to the website, the hall was built in 1825 by the founders of the museum, the East India Marine Society. You can see portraits of these founders displayed on one of the walls in the hall.
It is an absolutely gorgeous space with high ceilings, large windows letting the natural light in on each side, hardwood stairs and a grand staircase. Besides paintings of the founders, it holds items from the room’s beginnings, and some astounding figureheads from historic ships. When I’m in this hall, I can imagine living in the time of its founding, when ships roamed the world and elaborate parties would have taken place in that very space. You can actually still rent out the East India Marine Hall for nighttime events.
After spending time in my favorite hall, we ventured onward to “Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michaels”, an exhibition running until June. I will be honest in that I don’t know much about photographers, but I was engrossed by Michaels’ works. I was inspired by the fact that he often wrote poetic captions to go along with each picture. Since I am a writer, I appreciate a story-photo combination. His work with the use of varying exposures, especially in representation of a spirit or energy, really drew me in. The photos from later in his life show Michaels trying to come to terms with mortality, and along with the captions, will surely make you ponder.
In the gallery on a table there was a book called “The House I Once Called Home”, a series of his photographs and stories of each, depicting the house he lived in as a child and what had become of it. Next to this book was another from the museum, asking us to write on an index card what we would photograph if we were to return to our old homes. After writing it down, we were to place it in the holders on each page of the book, making it a collective tale of memories from hundreds of people. It was fascinating to read such intimate details of a stranger’s home, yet feel the love they had for this place. I wrote that I would have photographed the massive tree in the yard of my childhood home that dropped pine cones as I sat under it, and the lilac bushes in the backyard.
Although we could have continued to enjoy all that the museum had to offer for hours more, we had dinner and drink plans and had to be on our way. We will certainly be back to the Peabody Essex Museum, as it’s ever-evolving with new exhibits regularly and awesome events for the community and beyond. Next time, I am definitely going to purchase a ticket to visit the part of the museum called the Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old Chinese house astoundingly shipped to the U.S. and built back up at PEM. Knowing that there is a world-class museum right in Salem, Massachusetts is just another wonderful aspect of New England to mark on the list!
The Peabody Essex Museum – East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, MA, 978-745-9500
Open Tues-Sun, 10am-5pm, and the third Thurs. of each month, 10am-9pm. Closed Mondays (except for certain holidays).