THIS small city of 38,000, about 15 miles north of Boston, is having a moment of glory this weekend, as the Peabody Museum of Salem formally opens its Asian Export Art Wing. One-and-a-half years in the planning and two more in building, the new wing will be a major attraction to serious students of the art objects housed there, as well as tourists with an eye to handsome curios from other lands and other eras.
The building is also of interest to architects, for its blend of Asian and Western elements of design and its success at giving fairly large interior spaces a sense of residential scale.
After the expected flurry of media attention, the Peabody Museum will settle down to the task it has been devoted to since 1799: displaying interesting objects brought to America through foreign trade, particularly with the Far East. The museum today has some 300,000 objects, artifacts, and works of art.
Of this total, 10,000 or so fit into the category of Asian export art - items made specifically for export to Westerners between about the year 1500 and the 1940s. Many are typical of objects still being marketed in specialty stores in today's shopping malls: Oriental fans, chessboards and pieces, chests, and other beautifully crafted imports.
``What is so wonderful about this institution is that the visitor can appreciate the material on view in many different ways,'' said Peter Fetchko, who has been with the museum for 20 years and became its director in 1980.
``One can take the time to learn about the entire era, or one can focus on a single aspect,'' he added. ``One can relate to the objects in utilitarian terms, or one can appreciate them on a purely formal, aesthetic level.''
From the core collection of Asian export art, about 1,000 objects are on view in the new wing. They were chosen as being ``major pieces,'' representative of various categories: porcelain and other ceramic wares; silver, gold, and pewter holdings; hardwood and lacquer furniture; and paintings.
``This is the first time representative selections of objects from China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines have been presented together under one roof in a permanent exhibition space,'' said Dr. H.A. Crosby Forbes, since 1984 the curator of the department of Asian export art. ``It is designed to say to the public: This is the way this field can be organized and analyzed.
``The next stage will be to take one aspect of it that not much is known about and concentrate on that. We did this earlier with Chinese export silver. There has never been an exhibition of Japanese export silver, for example, and no book has been written on it. We would have to borrow from other collections to do such a show. And, of course, we would let it travel.''
The new wing was designed by the Boston firm of Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood, Architects Inc., which won a national competition for the design of the present Boston City Hall. Exhibit design was done by Donovan & Green, in cooperation with Stuart Silver Associates, New York.
Construction of the wing cost $8.1 million, and about $10.6 million has already been raised - enough to provide a current endowment to meet operating expenses. Another $2 million is being sought for this purpose.
Visitors can move freely between the main part of the museum and the new wing, on three levels. Asian export art is one of five curatorial departments. Others deal with maritime history, ethnology, natural history, and archaeology.
``The opening of the Asian Export Art Wing is not only a significant occasion for the Peabody Museum of Salem, but an important new development within the larger community of museums nationwide,'' said Richard Wheatland II, president of the museum. ``Other institutions have holdings that can be classified as Asian export art, but none has as rich a collection nor an entire facility in which to showcase the work. It has been especially gratifying to achieve this unique goal.''