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Art reflecting our world: Peabody Essex Museum launches exhibits that portray today’s concerns

Alexis Rockman launched the Peabody Essex Museum’s new Climate & Environment Initiative with his exhibition, "Shipwrecks."
Alexis Rockman launched the Peabody Essex Museum’s new Climate & Environment Initiative with his exhibition, "Shipwrecks."Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Climate and the environment. Social justice. Physical and mental wellness. They may sound like answers to a survey about what people are most worried about in the midst of a pandemic. But they are also focal points for initiatives currently underway at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which reopened on a limited basis last July.

A year ago, when museums were forced to shut their doors — and their exhibit halls — many scrambled to give would-be visitors online access to their collections. For PEM, this was only the beginning of a surge of new programming designed to face difficult topics.

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Earlier this month, the museum’s new Climate + Environment Initiative launched with the opening of “Shipwrecks,” an exhibition by Manhattan-based artist Alexis Rockman. Rockman’s paintings reimagine historic shipwrecks to symbolize the impact that the migration of goods, people, plants, and animals has had on the planet, with an emphasis on ecology and globalization.

Though the planning of the exhibition began long before the pandemic, its opening couldn’t be more timely, the artist pointed out.

“Right now we are all under the spell of zoobiotic diseases that have traveled mostly by airplane,” which is a modern-day version of what once happened by ship, Rockman said. “One of the pieces in the exhibition, which I painted last summer, is called ‘The Things They Carried,’ and it is about animals who have brought diseases to humans as humans have migrated around the world. At the bottom of the painting is a tipped-over tree of life with animals clinging to it, representing zoobiotic diseases.”

Alexis Rockman's painting "The Things They Carried" is about animals that have brought diseases to humans as humans have migrated around the world.
Alexis Rockman's painting "The Things They Carried" is about animals that have brought diseases to humans as humans have migrated around the world. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“The motivation from a curatorial perspective is, if not now, when?” said Jane Winchell, director of the museum’s Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center. “This is our moment. COVID and the pandemic have revealed things that are very helpful for us to be having front of mind as we think about the climate crisis. We need to be engaging with this topic with urgency, but we also want to approach it from the spirit of hope, positivity, and possibility. Creativity is really an underpinning of how we move forward into the 21st century with these kinds of challenges in front of us.”

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And it’s not only through art that PEM is confronting the challenges specific to our current times. Last year, the museum participated in two social outreach campaigns, one that partnered with the Salem Food Pantry to generate donations and another that provided free memberships to health care workers at North Shore Medical Center.

“Through these programs, we’ve learned so much about the diverse cultures in our community,” said Amanda Clark MacMullan, PEM’s chief philanthropy officer. “And that shifts the way we think about our exhibitions and how we can reflect our broad community better, whether that means exploring the injustices of the witch trials or last year’s ‘Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle’ exhibition,” now on national tour, which depicts the role of African-Americans in the earliest days of the nation..

These community partnerships, MacMullan said, are mutually strengthening.

“As a museum, we’re focusing on a lot of the issues that society faces today,” commented Robert Monk Jr., a member of the executive leadership team who is serving as acting chief operating officer while a museum director search is underway.

“Climate change is one of the biggest threats to all of humanity. We feel obligated to portray that. And being in Salem, at the epicenter of one of the greatest social injustices ever carried out in this country, we are well-positioned to focus on issues of social justice.”

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Meanwhile, Monk said, concern for individual wellness has never been higher. “Our collections lend themselves very well to programs like meditation and yoga, things that allow people some respite and time for self-reflection.”

Siddhartha Shah is the Peabody Essex Museum's director of education and civic engagement and curator of South Asian art.
Siddhartha Shah is the Peabody Essex Museum's director of education and civic engagement and curator of South Asian art. Ken Sawyer/© 2020ÊPeabodyÊEssexÊMuseum

For Siddhartha Shah, PEM’s director of education and civic engagement and curator of South Asian art, the pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to put some of his long-held beliefs about mind and body into practice. During the four months in 2020 when the museum was closed to the public, he offered twice-weekly virtual meditation sessions to his colleagues.

In December, he oversaw the opening of an exhibition called “Breath,” in which British artist Zarah Hussain’s paintings explore breathing as a tool for transformation and awakening. The exhibition kicked off the museum’s Being Well Initiative, which addresses physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being through activities ranging from meditation and dance to art-making and storytelling.

In her exhibit "Breath," British artist Zarah Hussai explores breathing as a tool for transformation and awakening.
In her exhibit "Breath," British artist Zarah Hussai explores breathing as a tool for transformation and awakening. Navid Akhtar

“What better time than during a pandemic to shift our focus to promoting care for ourselves, our community, and the diversity of cultures represented in the museum?” Shah asked. “Our collections began with mariners traveling from America to India to China. We are known for global contact and connection. What does it look like in terms of the programming we offer and communities we welcome in?”

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One answer to that question was to implement a monthly virtual art-making night, Shah said. It attracts isolated seniors and frustrated teenagers alike. “It’s a way of getting people from different generations coming together.”

Other events on the museum’s calendar turn the spotlight on social justice, such as this month’s virtual screenings of the film “Selma” and a recent online panel discussion in which Shah and Walter Harper Jr., associate professor of anthropology at Bridgewater State University, talked about what it means to be an American — “for me as a descendent of South Asian immigrants, for him as an African-American from Chicago,” Shah said. “Building bridges like that is another example of how we’re dealing with our multicultural and multigenerational aspects.”

And although civil rights programming and meditation classes might seem to stray far from the initial premise of an art museum, to MacMullan the throughline is clear. “PEM was founded by explorers who traveled around two capes to get to Asia, but they also built the museum as a community-oriented, service-oriented museum,” she said. “They had a mission to bring back curiosities from Asia, but also to take care of members of the community and beyond.”

The Peabody Essex Museum is located at East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem. For hours and more information, call 978-745-9500 or go to www.pem.org.

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.

Paintings in "Breath," an exhibit by Zarah Hussain at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Paintings in "Breath," an exhibit by Zarah Hussain at the Peabody Essex Museum.Kathy Tarantola/Peabody Essex Museum