Dash to Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum

Chinese House Peabody, Salem, Essex, United States

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, is an easy 30-minute drive from Boston, the heart of New England, and a major destination for leaf-peepers in autumn. The museum leaves the business of witch trials and colonial history to other local institutions, to instead focus purely on superior fine arts, with contents that are varied, compelling and diverse.

The museum is located just opposite the Salem Tourist Center, with plenty of nearby parking. The interior is a combination of old and new: glass ceilings that welcome lots of light even on gloomy days and a brick wall reminiscent of the cobblestones that fill the streets of Salem. The ‘old and new’ theme is throughout.

One of the highlights is Yin Yu Tang, a 19th century Chinese house. It was part of an exchange agreement with the local Chinese authorities in the Huizhou region of Anhui Province to help promote the culture of the region. The house was dismantled and re-built and today welcomes visitors to experience how the Huang family lived. Most of the objects within are original to the house, including anecdotes featured in a film where an elderly man recounts his mother wiping his face with toilet paper so that afterwards anything bad he said “came out as a fart!”

The “Art of Invention” focuses on Samuel Morse. Most know Morse as the man who further developed the telegraph and invented his eponymous code but he has accomplished so much more. Before Morse invented the code, he was a painter who specialized in portraitures. Morse was also an art professor who wanted to bring European art to America at a time when there were very few public museums. He tried to share impressionable paintings he had seen by copying them. His masterpiece: “Gallery of the Louvre” took two years to complete and includes a copy of the Mona Lisa. Morse also introduced photography to America. In 1839, he witnessed the invention of the daguerreotype in France, the precursor to the photograph. Forever a teacher, Morse taught others how to take pictures of their contemporaries earning his title the “Father of Photography”.

American Decorative Art is part of the permanent collection. One shouldn’t miss the dog collar of gold, diamonds, and pearls created in the 1900’s and the Seven Deadly Sins: a ceramic display of anger, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride and sloth. There are permanent collections too of Japanese Art and Asian Export Art as well as several outlying houses that are part of the museum. Outside, a sculpture woven entirely from local saplings, with the help of 50 volunteers called “What the Birds Know,” is worth a short walk to view.

This writer hopes to return for the PEM’s next exhibit: Shoes: Pleasure and Pain on view from late November. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, there will be 300 pairs of shoes on view with a global perspective on footwear fashion from the past, present and of the future. Over the last 20 years, the PEM has distinguished itself as one of the fastest growing museums and is currently expanding again.

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