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!
Portholes and eyes at the PEM.
Just 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.
My favorite posters from It’s Alive, on either side of some very atmospheric wallpaper.