Peabody Museum explores a maritime past

A visit to the Peabody Museum of Salem is like stepping into times past -- a time when New England first fell in love with the sea and the ships that sailed it. Founded in 1799 by the East India Marine Society, it is the oldest museum in the country.

The exhibits trace the story of Yankee ships that sailed the seas in foreign trade.

Many of the rooms in the two-story building contain collections brought back by sea captains from voyages made during this opulent era of world trade.

The Chinese display recalls the bond between New England and the Orient. In one exhibit, two figures of women dressed in Chinese silk are pouring tea. The tea set is of delicate porcelain. Authentic wallpaper ("tea paper"), furniture, and an Oriental rug complete the exhibit. Showcases contain exquisite ivory carvings from China and art objects from India, Burma, and Siam.

The Japanese collection is considered the finest in the world. Much of it was gathered soon after Japan had been opened by Commodore Matthew C. Perry. One showcase holds a large, elaborate, gold-lacquered household shrine. A delightful miniature Imperial Palace is also on view.

The museum contains the largest South Pacific collection in the United States. A 7-foot figure of a Hawaiian war god is one of three that survived from 1817, when Hawaii smashed its idols.

The Francis B. Crowninshield Gallery includes a reproduction of the main cabin in Cleopatra's Barge, the first yacht ever built in America, done in 1816 for Capt. George Crowninshield, a wealthy Salem merchant and shipmaster. Its elaborate furnishings create the atmosphere of a "floating palace."

The museum is at 161 Essex Street in Salem. Admission: $1.50 adults, 75 cents, children. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, holidays.

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