The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, may be this country's oldest continuing museum...or it may not be. Given its other distinctions, that hardly matters. Founded in 1799 by the wealthy entrepreneurs of Salem whose merchant ships sailed to India, Japan, Africa, China, the Pacific Islands, and beyond, it began with the curious idea of presenting the citizens of Salem with exotic treasures brought back from those places, something the museum continues to do courtesy of generous donors, adventurous curators, and minus the risky sea voyages. What can be said with certainty is that PEM remains our most curious museum in every good sense of that word-an unusually open place dedicated to asking questions, especially questions that unlock the past and charge it with newness. It was the ideal place to join a group of artists and the museum's curators to consider how art in our time can be presented and experienced.
But let us back up a moment for a few facts: Peabody Essex was originally two institutions, the Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute. A bold sea change came about in 1992 when the two were joined and the first of PEM's stupendously successful fund-raising campaigns ($194 million) followed by a wing designed by Moshe Safdie resembling the billowing rigging of a sailing ship announced a new era. By 2003, when the museum installed the two-hundred-year-old Yin Yu Tang house brought over from China, it was clear that PEM was remaking itself on a grand scale. An additional 175,000 square foot expansion, which was to be designed by the late Rick Mather, has now been awarded to Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership) and should open in 2019. The museum continues to collect and present Oceanic, Asian, American, and Native American work, and it continues to be insistently curious about the effect these things can have on the lives of its no longer affluent Salem neighbors as well as on our own.
When chief curator Lynda Hartigan describes PEM's ambition to be "transformational" in its impact on people, she speaks for everything from its ArtLink program for local schoolchildren to a scholarly project like Karina Corrigan's research on eighteenth-century Indian palampores, to curator of contemporary art Trevor Smith's FreePort series that opens the museum's collections to artists who are encouraged to approach them with new eyes.
Most museums are eager to increase attendance and visibility by tapping into the energies of the contemporary art market. They want the allure of the new, but they tend to isolate it as if containing a contagion-whether it is from the contagion of the new or the disease of the old one can't always be sure. PEM by contrast exudes confidence about the conjunctions of old and new; its curators seem comfortable in both worlds, at ease with one another and with the innovations of PEM's FreePort project. That FreePort is more open and immersive than most museum forays into contemporary art is best illustrated by Michael Lin's current installation in the Asian Export Art galleries. Lin has painted the staircase and floors of the galleries with heraldic motifs snatched from the Chinese export armorial porcelain in PEM's immense collection, thereby liberating them from their association with whatever families originally brandished them. In a complementary move he had hundreds of replicas made of the fat and hapless figure Mr. No-Body, presumed to be the first representation (late 1600s) of a European gentleman in Chinese porcelain. Made at a factory in China, these new Nobodies, which Lin calls Everybodies, line ceramic drying racks in one of the galleries and are for sale in the gift shop. While Lin's heraldic paintings turn our attention away from the grandees who commissioned them and back to the motifs themselves, his Nobodies raise questions of scarcity and value (a rare late seventeenth-century Mr. No-Body sold at Christie's last January for $158,000) and elicit a laugh at the expense of these rapidly proliferating predators.
One of the things that make the collections at PEM exciting is the fact that its curators do not try to domesticate their strangeness. A Japanese helmet, a portable shrine for the goddess Guanyin, the wallpaper from Strathallan castle in Scotland, even the presumably familiar ship's models and maritime paintings are all allowed to startle us a little, as they should. By doing so they give us the entry point for really seeing them as the visiting artists did in the two days we spent looking and talking together.
PEM began more than two centuries ago as a museum intent on opening New England eyes to a world few of its neighbors could have imagined. In the East India Marine Hall, among the war clubs and masks originally donated by the founders, you can feel those mariners' excitement, sense the dangers they faced, maybe even their desire to capture a vast and unaccountable world between walls. During our visit the artists and curators began to envision the museum as open to the world in a new way, those walls as newly or potentially transparent, and PEM itself as, in the words of María Magdalena Campos-Pons, "a huge egg waiting to hatch." That is an apt metaphor for the future of the institution, containing as it does the breaking of an old frame, an opening out, and the promise of new life inevitably emerging from and connected to the past.