Posters (and More) @ the PEM

In my recent post on the Phillips Library, I deliberately excluded any commentary on the Peabody Essex Museum, but most of the commenters did not. Any large expansive institution inserting and asserting itself in the midst of a small city like Salem is going to incur a lot of commentary, and the Peabody Essex Museum is not an exception. I wanted my post to focus on Salem’s material heritage, so I excluded its enveloping institution, but in fact my feelings towards the Peabody Essex are mixed. I understand that in order to be successful, the 1992 merger of the former Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem had to result in a completely new museum, rather than a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of the two former institutions. That has happened: the Peabody Essex is new, and dynamic, and thriving. I do miss the dusty Essex Institute a bit, just because I like those sorts of institutions, and I think Salem needs a historical society/museum run by professionals for passion and preservation, rather than profit. But I know it is never coming back. However, its archive, the Phillips Museum, must come back. And meanwhile, the Peabody Essex is here, and expanding like a force of nature: one must embrace it. I appreciate many things about the PEM: its collections, its community programming, even its shop. It is a constant resource for me as both a curious individual and a teacher. But just as I want to see more of its historical records, I want to see more of its collections–and it seems to me that the showcase, display, and interpretation of the PEM’s permanent collections are deemed secondary to the mounting of blockbuster exhibitions time and time again: DRESSES, HATS, SHOES. The first great expansion of the relatively new PEM over a decade ago was explained in terms of the need to have more exhibition space to display the Museum’s collections, as is its current project, but in the interim we have seen lots of DRESSES, HATS and SHOES (and several months of McIntire and Gould, to be fair).

At present, the PEM has two blockbuster exhibitions on view coincidentally: the summer-long exhibition Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style and It’s Alive, a showcase of classic horror and science fiction movie posters from the collection of Kirk Hammett. When I first heard about both, I thought, oh no, posters and posters taking up precious gallery space (away from the permanent collections): ephemera. But I have visited Ocean Liners several times over the summer and I think it comes very close to the “glocal” vision first expressed at the time of the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum: local history with an enhanced global context. It is maritime history ramped up several notches, encompassing art, history, culture, and style. There are posters, of course, but wow, several of them speak volumes in terms of their impact and message. It’s Alive just seems like a collection of movie posters to me, not really an exhibition, but if I were a curator at the PEM with October hordes passing by my door, I wouldn’t have turned them down either!

PEM ExhibitionsPortholes and eyes at the PEM.

PEM Exhibitions 3

PEM Exhibitions 4

PEM Clyde

PEM Exhibition LinersPEM Exhibitions 7

PEM Exhibitions 5

PEM Murals

PEM Fashion

PEM Luggage

PEM Exhibitions 6

PEM Exhibitions 2

PEM Enlist

PEM Enlist LOCJust a few items from Ocean Liners, which also includes some amazing ship models of which I don’t seem to be able to take a good photograph. Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilders on the Clyde: Riveters (1941) is amazing! The panel from the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic is displayed in full majesty, altar-style, in the midst of renderings from other pre-World War I ships–this was an era in which the interiors were certainly not streamlined. I never knew there was Titanic “recreation diorama” for tourists just a couple of years after the disaster! This Fred Spear Enlist poster from 1915, showing victims of the Lusitania sinking, really stopped me in my tracks–the last image is from the Library of Congress. 


PEM EX Wallpaper

PEM Exhibitions KarloffMy favorite posters from It’s Alive, on either side of some very atmospheric wallpaper.

11 responses to “Posters (and More) @ the PEM

  • Matt

    Is the PEM run for profit? I presumed all monies raised and earned went to support the professionals, the passion and the preservation.

    • daseger

      Me too, Matt: I was contrasting Phillips/pem with some of our other “museums”—maybe not clearly.

    • salemcat2016


      Is profit bad ?

      When you work, are you not paid for your time ?

      Should the PEM, as well as McDonald’s, be staffed solely by those who love what they are doing ? Who should passionately work for free ?

      Perhaps our Schools and Universities should also be staffed only by the independently wealthy, who would teach without pay.

      I believe in PROFIT – People should be paid a Fair Wage – they should PROFIT from their efforts.

      The last time we had those who toiled without profit, we fought a Civil War to end it.

      • daseger

        Well of course the PEM is classified as a tax-exempt nonprofit institution.

      • Matt

        Profit is not bad. People should be paid for their time. My issue was that the inference (interpreted incorrectly) in the article was that the PEM was run for profit, versus earning what is needed to pay their employees a fair wage.

        What the PEM earns is needed to pay people for their time, not to earn a profit, which can have a negative connotation (profit goes to shareholders, earnings of non-profits go back to the organization and, ultimately, to the benefactors of the non-profit, in this case the community). Perhaps there was a time when the people of the Essex Institute were paid through private benefactors. Those days are gone, and what we have is the PEM of today – they charge for exhibits, sell goods in their store, raise money – all things needed to keep a worthy organization going. All without profit, and without violating the 14th amendment.

        My presumption is that your point was somewhat similar. The big difference here is that I didn’t skip my meds to make it.

        BTW, there is a lawful form of work without pay. It is called volunteerism.

  • Henry M Zbyszynski

    Your comments concerning the current PEM express my feelings very well. Some of the exhibits/shows seem fitting for a Las Vegas hotel lobby.

    • salemcat2016


      If you dislike the exhibits at the PEM, simply do not attend them.

      Fortunately they charge Admission to support the Artists, the Building, the Security, the Employees.

      I am not aware if the PEM receives a penny of your Tax Dollars. If they do, perhaps your complaints hold water.

      If not, allow those who enjoy the Exhibitions, and prove it by parting with their Dollars to attend, to enjoy themselves.

      That’s how the system works.

  • salemcat2016

    Another excellent column by Donna.

    ART is not always pigment hand-applied to Canvas.

    Photographs, Etchings, Posters can also be Art.

    I have not seen the Ocean Liner Exhibit yet, though I hope to. But I found IT’S ALIVE wonderful !

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Sorry to say I did not make it to Salem this summer, so I thank you for reviewing the PEM’s two popular exhibits.

    “This Fred Spear Enlist poster from 1915, showing victims of the Lusitania sinking, really stopped me in my tracks—“

    That “ENLIST” poster was striking. It took me a few seconds to get the message. I must suggest to your readers a book from recent years, DEAD WAKE, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. Folks might say, “Oh, I know how it ends.” But the story is fascinating in describing the experience of luxury cruising as contrasted with the account of the German submarine captain pursuing the ship to its “watery grave.”

    Also, I will be following the discourse on “streets” about the thorny issue of the Essex Institute’s accessibility…

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