Published: June 23, 2003
– Coming just ten short years after the merger of the Peabody Museum and the Essex Institute, the Peabody Essex Museum has recently culminated one of the most significant renovation and expansion endeavors undertaken by a museum in many years.
Founded in 1799 as the East India Marine Society and later changing its name to the Peabody Museum, it is the oldest continuously operated museum in America. Located just several blocks away was the Essex Institute that was founded in 1815. The two merged their operations in 1993, ultimately providing the impetus for the museum’s recent amazing growth and redefinition.
The expansion of the Peabody Essex Museum, a $125 million project, has allowed the institution to properly and prominently display its vast collections in both a newly renovated and new state-of-the-art facility. This is a major accomplishment for an American museum, something that neither of the museums was able to accomplish on its own prior to the merger and expansion. The opening of the new wing provides an additional 111,000 square feet, and brings the museum’s total space to more than 250,000 square feet.
Museum Director Daniel Monroe believes the newly expanded museum will be a trailblazer, stating, “With the new museum, the Peabody Essex has the opportunity to set a national precedent for the way art is exhibited and interpreted.”
The renovation project got underway with phase one in 1995. The former Rogers Clothing Store across the esplanade from the museum was totally renovated into the museum’s office center. In the second phase the Phillips Library received a facelift, and its interior was brought up to modern institutional standards. During the next phase, the basement of the National Parks Visitor Center was converted into a state-of-the-art collections storage facility. Then the burned out shell of the adjacent armory was razed, and a beautiful park was installed. Throughout the entire construction and renovation process the existing museum galleries were undergoing total overhauls.
The final construction phase called for a new wing with galleries, an auditorium and other amenities. The board chose architect Moshe Safdie to design a novel institutional building that offered the ultimate museum experience while being compatible with its neighborhood.
To celebrate the reopening on June 21, twenty-three exhibitions simultaneously go on display in new and refurbished galleries, and, while the Peabody Essex is considered a world-class museum of Asian Export goods, the newly expanded space will allow it to reveal the depth of its collections in many other areas.
“It will now be apparent that we have the premier collection of objects from New England,” stated American curator Dean Lahikainen, whose department has two inaugural exhibitions. A high style exhibition occupies two-and-one-half galleries on the first floor of the new wing. “We have many wonderful rdf_Descriptions that have never been exhibited before. Sargent’s portrait ‘Mrs Peter Chardon Brooks’ is a recent acquisition that we are showing for the first time,” reported Lahikainen.
The curator then noted, “This great William and Mary dressing table is also on display for the first time. It is a fine example with an absolutely untouched structure and surface. It has been in the collection of the Essex Institute since the 1820s.”
In East Hall is a second Americana exhibit that looks more to county and craft rdf_Descriptions, including both historical and contemporary objects. Curator Paula Richter commented, “This exhibit examines how people bring art into daily life. These objects have both aesthetic and functional roles.”
The Native American department gallery is next to East India Marine Hall. The exhibition “Power and Beauty” is deep in unique and rare rdf_Descriptions of cultural significance, such as the Dakota baby carrier. Curator Karen Kramer commented, “In a Dakota family, a new or expectant mother might be honored by the gift of a newly made or heirloom baby carrier. In this instance, the carrying strap and hanging tinkler strips feature motifs depicting the spirit being known as ‘Thunderer’ or ‘Thunderbird,’ the protective bird of the sky. It is likely that it was made for a family of very high rank in the Dakota community.”
The Maritime department also has two exhibitions currently on view with the Maritime Art gallery occupying the first floor space in the new wing. Curator Daniel Finamore noted, “A unique exhibit is a pair of Paris porcelain vases with enameled United States maritime scenes. Each individually is probably unique, but to have a pair is incredible.” There is also a Seafaring Culture exhibition located on the first floor beneath East India Marine Hall.
Assistant curator Susan Bodwitch installed an African exhibit, “Legacies: African Art in the World,” in a third floor gallery. Among the highlights is a folded sheet of parchment with a series of paintings. “This extremely early [Fifteenth Century] Ethiopian icon is characterized by its use of medieval Christian images in concert with local secular scenes,” commented Bodwitch. “The depiction of St George in the middle panel is a favorite; the lack of a dragon marks it as early.” This image has also attracted the attention of Twentieth Century artists including musician Paul Simon who used it on the cover of his CD Graceland.
Considered by many to be the most spectacular of all exhibits is the Yin Yu Tang House, a 5,000-square-foot Nineteenth Century home, the only period Chinese home in an American museum. The building originally housed a merchant family named Huang from the early 1800s until the mid-1980s.
The 5,000-square-foot structure makes a powerful impression with its huge, stately exterior and interior courtyards. The home is fully furnished with the furniture, decorative objects and household rdf_Descriptions used by the Huang family.
Curator Nancy Berliner has designed insightful interpretations that convey Chinese culture and history to visitors via an 18-minute tape on the home’s history. Visitors then can choose either a half-hour guided tour, an audio tour or free walking through the house. The exhibition offers a profound look into Chinese culture.
Two other domestic Chinese exhibitions are curated by Bruce MacLaren. “Men Plow, Women Weave” is based upon a set of 46 woodblock prints that the emperor of China ordered made in 1696. MacLaren noted, “The set was intended to illustrate two fundamental parts of the economy. It contains 23 images of rice production and 23 images of silk production. It was distributed freely and became something of a stylebook. The designs pop up in other media continuing to the present. The exhibit displays objects made in China and elsewhere by borrowing these designs.”
MacLaren also serves as museum’s curator of the traveling exhibition “Ancestral Portraits” assembled by the Sackler Museum in Washington, D.C.
Asian Export curator William Sargent and associate curator Karina Corrigan installed three exhibitions. In the Chinese Export exhibition, some wares reveal several cultures, such as a Chinese porcelain plate (1522-1566) that features underglaze blue decoration in the tree of life pattern and was probably produced for the Indian market that favored that design. However, the plate sits in Seventeenth Century European bronze mounts and has European gilding.
Curator Susan Bean is enthusiastic about having the first Peabody gallery devoted entirely to Korean arts. Bean commented, “It is a new gallery but an old collection begun in the late Nineteenth Century. One of our superb works is a screen depicting a banquet of the Queen Mother of the West. It is a Doaist story that originated in China, but it has been in Korea for a thousand years. It signifies immortality. The artist who painted it belonged the Bureau of Painting that was attached to the royal court. The work’s intention was to express long life for members of the royal family.”
Bean also curates three exhibitions related to India: “Indian History and Culture,” “Indian Export Art” and “Indian Contemporary Art.”
Other exhibitions include “Asian Export Works on Paper,” “Japan Art and Culture,” “Masterpieces of Asian Photography,” “The Architectural Planning of the New Museum” and “Family Ties.”
The revamped museum now has its first chief curator, Linda Hartigan. She sees the opening not as the end of a process but as the launching point for better programs. Hartigan stated, “I am looking forward to working with the Peabody Essex’s talented curatorial staff to develop dynamic exhibition and acquisition programs, and sharing with visitors the museum’s exceptional art and culture from around the world.”
The Peabody Essex Museum will be hosting “The Boston Furniture Symposium, New Research on the Federal Period” on November 14-16. The symposium will feature 17 curators and scholars presenting new research in their fields and will be held in conjunction with the exhibition “Luxury and Innovation: Furniture Masterworks by John and Thomas Seymour” opening November 16. For further information call 866-745-1876, extension 3213.
The museum is located in East India Square between Essex Street and Derby Street. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 pm on Sunday. Admission fees are $12 adults, $10 seniors and $8 students. Children under 16 are admitted free. For information call 866-745-1876 or visit the website at www.pem.org.
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