Museum Makeover

The Peabody Essex just might be the best museum you've never heard of.

Any notion that traditional museum-going is superfluous in today's Internet-dominated world doesn't fly at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

Its plans to spend $65 million on a huge expansion come as a timely vote of confidence in brick-and-mortar museums. But then, this is an institution with a proven record for survival. The museum, begun in rented rooms in 1799, is now the oldest continuously operated museum in the United States. President John Quincy Adams was present at the dedication in 1825 when it moved to its present location.

"Museums, I think, are increasingly going to be the touchstones of real experience," says John Grimes, the museum's deputy director for special projects. "They will affirm that it's not just a virtual world out there, with pictures and words on the Internet. It's a place where you can stand in front of the original document or inspect what someone created with their.....hands hundreds of years ago, far, far away." Few museums are in a better position to do this than the Peabody Essex, given the incredible size of its collection.

It owns more than 2 million works of art, architecture, and culture that tell of Salem's historical links to the wider world. And the museum is still actively collecting - it recently purchased a 17th-century valuables cabinet that belonged to the aunt of Benjamin Franklin at auction for $2.4 million, a record price for a 17th-century American piece.

Despite owning 23 buildings, including several historic homes in Salem's seaport district, exhibit space is limited. Only 1 percent of the museum's holdings are on display at any one time. That will change, though, with the completion in 2003 of a 100,000-square-foot addition, which will nearly double the gallery space.

The design will allow for faster rotation of exhibits. Creating a kaleidoscope of exhibits and galleries is increasingly important to museums, says Dan Monroe, the executive director of the Peabody Essex.

Keeping fresh exhibits opening is important. The museum must, to a degree, compete with Boston's huge Museum of Fine Arts, a cultural hub that annually attracts about 1.7 million visitors. Officials at the Peabody Essex expect that the expanded museum will double the current annual attendance of 150,000.

Tourists account for slightly more than half that total, but Mr. Monroe wants the percentage of repeat local visitors to climb. "It's better from our perspective to have one person come back six times a year," he says, "than to have a very high tourist visitation."

Why? Because studies show that tourist-oriented museums tend to have smaller endowments, less patron support, and rely more heavily on gate receipts. The Peabody Essex is well-endowed ($78 million), yet it walks a fine line in trying to remain both global and local in outlook.

Its collection goes back to sea captains who sailed from Salem to points beyond the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and Cape Horn in South America. These pioneering global entrepreneurs brought unusual prosperity to Salem, which in 1692 was the scene of infamous witchcraft trials but by 1790 was making a positive name for itself as the sixth-largest city in the US (and the richest per capita).

Ultimately, ships brought back more than 4,000 objects from China, Japan, India, Africa, and the Pacific Islands that laid the groundwork for today's extensive collection.

Jim Delgado, executive director of the Vancouver (B.C.) Maritime Museum and president of the Council of American Maritime Museums, notes that Salem was once the focal point for a young America that was reaching out across the globe through maritime trade.

"It was said you could walk the streets of Salem and find people more conversant with the South China Sea and the intricacies of the Dardanelles than knew the nooks and crannies of coastal Maine," he observes. "The Peabody Essex Museum has a rightful opportunity to state a more global, international claim."

One of the most ambitious international acquisitions is a centuries-old Chinese house that will be rebuilt and incorporated into the expanded museum. This stately house, the residence of one family for more than 200 years, will offer an authentic look at life in a remote village.

Despite a strong international reputation, the Peabody Essex is not well- known locally. But if it has come up short in this area, it is not alone, says Harold Skramstad, the past president of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.

"Museums tend to assume everybody knows about them," Dr. Skramstad says. "They spend a huge amount on the party [the exhibits] and almost nothing on the invitation [marketing]."

Simply adding razzle-dazzle isn't the answer. The Peabody Essex makes limited, but effective use of modern technology, but concentrates on other means of engaging visitors. The museum's events calendar, for example, is filled with lectures, film series, trips, concerts, performances, and social events such as a public swing dance held in the newly restored East India Marine Hall, a National Historic Landmark.

For its bicentennial celebration, the museum created an exhibition - "Odyssey: A Journey Into World Art" (see above) - that showcases its eclectic collection.

The new challenge, deputy director Grimes says, is in finding ways to make the museum's physical environment part of the visiting experience. Wanting to move away from exhibit halls as illuminated black boxes to something more dynamic, the Peabody Essex hired Moshe Safdie, a prominent museum architect.

Mr. Safdie's design is consistent with the size and scale of historic Salem buildings, but boldly contemporary. A long, glass-covered pedestrian arcade will lead to an indoor courtyard with cafe tables at the heart of the new building.

Safdie is skilled at bringing natural light into interior spaces, a technique that will combat "museum fatigue" and put visitors in touch with the outside world, Grimes says. And that, after all, is what the Peabody Essex Museum is all about.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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