Let’s face it: When you turn 220 years old, it’s time for a refresh. That’s why, when the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) opens its doors this September, in addition to the 13 new galleries and exhibitions that have been successively rolled out, you’ll see #newPEM on social media and around the museum. This signals not only the 40,000-square-foot expansion with a shiny new atrium but also Brian Kennedy taking the helm this summer, following Dan Monroe’s retirement after 25 years of service. Many things are new; however, there is still a through line of the timeless, the eternal, and the deeply human.
Fittingly, an exhibition kicking off the expansion is the commissioned, site-specific work Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Getting beyond the ego that comes with fame, world-renowned Korean artist Kimsooja has created a communal project that makes its North American debut at PEM. Awaiting visitors are mounds of clay and a large oval table with 24 stools. We are invited to gather a lump of clay, take a seat, knead the clay into a ball, and roll it toward the table’s center. It’s deceptively simple—time sort of stops, your heart rate slows—and yet it’s completely profound. Along with thousands of other visitors, we collectively create an archive of our emptying minds.
“There is a mesmerizing quality to the work as you watch it slowly build and see individual gestures accumulate into something large and powerful,” says PEM’s curator of the present tense, Trevor Smith. “It reminds us of human potential and shows us the importance of slowing down and paying attention.”
As you exit the world of Kimsooja, you enter an intimate but mighty installation called Powerful Figuresthat features sculptures from around the world embodying the concept of power, as both a fundamental social dynamic and an expression of our innate wiring to respond to figures and faces. Through the use of dramatic red lighting and curved metal niches, your gaze is guided to confront eight different sculptures that embody human power, and you are encouraged to consider your own.
Moving along, you’ll step into the brand-new wing—soaring three stories high—that gives you a fresh vantage on East India Marine Hall, the museum’s founding structure, where it all began. In the new atrium, your eye immediately goes to the most powerful figure of all: Kū. Considered a living god by many Native Hawaiians, this carving that came to PEM in 1846 is one of only three such temple images left in the world. With his powerful spiritual presence embodying male energy, prosperity, and warfare, Kūwas installed in the new wing with the help of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, who led a breathtaking blessing of chants and offerings. You’ll see Kūprominently installed on a sky bridge, where he can experience the shifting of the day and gaze westward, back toward Hawaii.
As you turn to the west in the new atrium, head toward PEM’s new garden, which invites us to contemplate nature and our role in it. Follow the granite ribbon out of the building, where species native to both North America and Asia await, as well as two gurgling fountains and a place to rest, reflect, and recharge.
Next, go into the third-floor Fashion & Design Gallery and discover more than 200 fashion, industrial, and decorative works from PEM’s global collections. This gallery explores how we have creatively responded to our changing world over the last several centuries and suggests how we might design for our future. While fashion and design are typically kept separate in museums, here they mingle.
As interior designers, collectors, and commissioners of haute couture, furniture, accessories, and decorative arts, Iris and Carl Apfel inspire us to design our own world. The installation features selections from Iris Apfel’s Rare Bird of Fashioncollection. Her wardrobe—multiple closets of it—was recently promised to PEM, and the gallery is likely the largest display of her collection on view anywhere. Iris celebrated her 98th birthday in August and is going strong as a fashion icon, best-selling author, and makeup ambassador. She also was the subject of a beloved documentary, has launched her own furniture and accessory lines, and regularly models.
“In a culture where age is often used against us, the notion that your value as a human being continues for as long as you have the capacity to contribute is really important,” says Lynda Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes deputy director and chief curator.
Adds Petra Slinkard, PEM’s Nancy B. Putnam curator of fashion and textiles, “To utter her name brings a smile to many a face. And for those who might look confused, a simple ‘You know…the fashionable woman with the white hair and the round black glasses’ usually does the trick.”
On the second floor, PEM’s Asian Export Art collection, foremost in the world, explores cross-cultural exchange as a catalyst for creativity and celebrates the interplay of commerce and creative expression. While globalism may seem like a uniquely modern concept, this collection shows us how the complex dynamics of international relations and trade have been at work for centuries.
These works of art tell tales of desire and obsession, of individuals willing to do almost anything to get what they wanted. They also reveal stories of mastery, of artists who could transform ordinary materials into extraordinary works of art. Take porcelain, for example. “There’s a reason we call porcelain ‘china,’” explains Karina Corrigan, PEM’s H. A. Crosby Forbes curator of Asian Export Art. “Before the 1700s, Europeans couldn’t produce this shockingly white, nearly translucent, and incredibly durable material. This deeply kept secret made porcelain not only a valuable commodity, but also ignited forms of industrial espionage.”
And porcelain is only one example. Europeans were hooked on imported silk, tea, and lacquer. But theonly thing China wanted in exchange was silver. In opium, the British found an insidious alternative to silver. For the first time, PEM’s Asian Export Art installation explores the devastating legacy of British and American opium smuggling into China, a human rights catastrophe that parallels today’s opioid crisis in the U.S.
Back on the first floor, find the home of the finest maritime art collection in the country. Framing the sea as an enduring source of opportunity as well as peril, and a force that inspires artistic creativity and innovation, the gallery celebrates ship logs, fine paintings, and pieces made by sailors. These splendid works come alive as you consider your own risk-taking adventures and engagement with the wider world.
“The sea is a universal phenomenon that spans geography and time and has always inspired humans to create,” says Dan Finamore, PEM’s Russell Knight curator for Maritime Art and History. “There hasn’t been anyone in human history who in some way, environmentally at least, has not been impacted by the sea.”Finish your tour in East India Marine Hall, where the museum began. Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0 offers an immersive, dynamic projection installation inspired by PEM’s vast collection of 19th-century ships’ logs and sailors’ journals. Experience the continuum of culture and history as the installation’s algorithms respond to your movements through space and time. Join in this constellation of swirling activity, where the past catches up to our present.
Join PEM’s newly appointed Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, Brian Kennedy, and Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll on Saturday, September 28, for a ribbon cutting ceremony. Tour the new wing, enjoy performances, and participate in hands-on art making opportunities throughout the day. Sunday, September 29, is a community open house. Admission is free for both events. Pem.org