date published: August 4, 2003

Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum on Massachusetts’ North Shore unveils an historic expansion and renovation to showcase its vast wealth of cultural treasures
by Christine Celli

photos: Peter Vanderwarker

WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY —The newly refurbished Peabody Essex Museum boasts (from top) a striking new Atrium, renovated galleries and the imported-from-China Yu Yin Tang house.

Growing pains are commonplace in New England, an area founded before the advent of grid-patterned street plans and bursting with historical preservation groups. But when expansions are necessary, a way is usually found to get them done—unless we’re talking about that 90-year-old baseball stadium. Thousands of fans may still be jamming their bottoms into outdated seats at Fenway Park, but the Peabody Essex Museum in nearby Salem has found a way to complete a major expansion that has finally made room for the public display of its long-hidden treasures.

The nation’s oldest continually operating museum got its start not long after our country did, in 1799, when a collective of elite sea merchants came together to provide a place to publicly show art, furnishings and elaborate finds procured on trade missions to Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. But as the collection grew, the space in which to display them became scarce, relegating some of its finest objects to the attic.

But thanks to a recently completed, $125 million dollar renovation and expansion, the 203-year-old museum now boasts over 250,000 square-feet of space, including a new wing to showcase its collection of Asian art and cultural objects, considered one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world. The museum also boasts American fine, folk and decorative arts spanning 300 years of New England’s history, an extensive maritime collection that dates back to the institution’s earliest days, and the first collection of Native American art in the hemisphere with works ranging from priceless archaeological finds to contemporary pieces by Native American artists.

By car: Located 16 miles north of Boston, take I-93 North to I-95/Route 128 North to exit 25A. Follow route 114 East into Salem. In Salem, follow signs for the museum and downtown parking. (Note: I-95 and Route 128 North share the same loop around Boston. When the roads divide, stay on Route 128 North.)

By train: Take the MBTA Commuter Rail (Newburyport/Rockport line) from Boston’s North Station (a round-trip ticket is $6 for adults). The museum is a five-minute walk from the Salem station. Follow signs for downtown.

By bus: From Haymarket Station, board the No. 450 or No. 455 bus to Salem Depot.

The expansion, designed by critically acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie, unites the museum’s historic properties with its gardens, adding not just more room but—with the inclusion of a breathtaking new atrium—a more comfortable environment. With the new space comes a renewed focus on education, which the museum hopes to execute through educational centers, scholarships and a new curatorial focus that combines historical items with contemporary works throughout the exhibit halls. “Museums can present art and objects in ways that create dialogue rather than support a singular worldview,” explained Dan Monroe, the museums’ executive director and CEO.

The improvements also include two new gallery spaces for such temporary exhibitions as Family Ties, a collection of contemporary artists’ interpretations of family (see story, at right). Perhaps most remarkable of all is the addition of the Yin Yu Tang house, a late Qing Dynasty Chinese merchant’s dwelling acquired by the museum in 1997. The two-story home, which was owned and occupied by one family—the Huangs—for more than 200 years, was transported to Salem and rebuilt inside the museum with their blessing. A finely crafted example of Anhui-style architecture, the dwelling features all its original furniture and household items and is a picturesque and appropriate addition to a museum that got its start thanks to merchant traditions. With its new expansion, the museum hopes to continue this mission to preserve the history and culture in its care.

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The ties that bind—be them through a shared lineage, ethnicity or even a homeland—are the subject of a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, the first in its new halls created for changing displays. Curated by Trevor Fairbrother, who formerly curated contemporary and American shows for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Seattle Art Museum, Family Ties presents works by nearly 60 artists, each expressing their ideas of family in mediums ranging from sculpture to film and photography. With works from artists like Pop Art guru Andy Warhol, photographer Nan Goldin, painters Paul Cadmus and Kerry James Marshall as well as tactile creations by Faith Ringgold (pictured above) and Yinka Shonibare, the extensive show offers provocative and often nostalgic looks at our society’s idea of family—particularly poignant in a time when social and economic hardship has led many to seek out and rely on these ties the most.