Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, a longtime leader at the Peabody Essex Museum who decamped last summer for a position at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, is coming home.
The Salem museum announced Thursday that Hartigan, who currently serves as deputy director for collections and research and chief innovation officer at the Canadian museum, will be PEM’s next executive director and CEO. Hartigan, who takes over on Aug. 23, will be the first woman to hold the top job at the museum, whose roots date to the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society.
Her appointment, which follows a four-month search, comes as PEM seeks stability amid the ongoing pandemic and the abrupt departure of Brian P. Kennedy, who stepped down as director and chief executive last December after just 17 months on the job.
Robert M. Monk Jr., the museum’s chief of facilities operations, planning, and security, has led the museum on an interim basis while the executive search committee sought Kennedy’s replacement.
“I will be coming to help move the organization and the staff forward, because things have changed,” Hartigan, 70, said in a telephone interview. “How do we create a trusted, respectful arena for considering timely issues with intellectual credibility and empathy and still foreground how important creativity is as a form of human connection in a time that’s just remarkably divisive?”
In many respects, Hartigan, who was appointed PEM’s first chief curator in 2003 before becoming the museum’s deputy director in 2016, represents a safe choice for the museum. As deputy director under longtime PEM leader Dan Monroe, she has deep knowledge of the museum, which under Monroe added more than 270,000 square feet of new facilities and increased its endowment from $23 million to more than $500 million.
Stuart W. Pratt, who chairs the museum’s board of trustees, said that although the museum passed Hartigan over the last time around, her Canadian stint — to say nothing of the transformative effects the pandemic and ongoing social justice movement have had on museums — has fashioned Hartigan into the leader PEM needs today.
“That sabbatical gave her insights into our museum she never would have had if she had just taken over after Dan left,” Pratt said by telephone. “Her vision hasn’t changed, but I think her way of looking at the museum world is very much changed. She will take us in directions she probably would not have taken us if she had not had the experience [at the Royal Ontario Museum].”
The Salem museum, whose wide-ranging collection comprises more than 1 million objects — from an indigenous headdress to the work of Nick Cave — has sought to burnish its international profile in recent years, both hosting and generating international traveling exhibitions.
The museum’s growth has at times roiled the surrounding community, and one of Hartigan’s tasks will be to balance its international standing and exhibition schedule with the demographically diverse neighboring communities.
“[The museum] is in an inquisitive and questioning and committed phase,” said Hartigan. “And I know that one of the things I’ll be tackling with the board and staff together is what it would look like for PEM to be an inclusive organization for the surrounding community.”
She also returns to Salem at a particularly fraught moment for the museum, where morale plummeted during a pandemic year in which leadership, facing a projected $6 million loss in revenue, laid off 15 percent of its staff. Six months later, in December 2020, director Kennedy shocked the museum world when he stepped down, giving no reason for his departure.
“There is no question that was botched,” Pratt said, describing the staff reductions. But “nothing was done intentionally. It was overwhelming. At that point, you were running to poke fingers in holes in the dam.”
He added that when the search committee began speaking with other directors of museums, many described the challenge of finding someone who could understand and work with PEM’s large and diverse collections.
“They also asked us why we had not focused in on Lynda right away,” he said, adding the museum was “ready for a change” when it selected Kennedy, who at the time led the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. “Sometimes it’s very tough for people to understand when they have someone they’ve worked with for as long as we had with Lynda just how knowledgeable and capable she is.”
He added that he’s already shared the news with some senior staff at the museum.
“The support internally is tremendous — relief is the word for it,” he said. “They know she understands the museum. She has great vision.”
Hartigan, an expert on the work of Joseph Cornell and who specializes in American modern, folk, and Black artists, served as chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., before coming to PEM. As chief curator and later deputy director at the Salem museum, Hartigan overhauled its exhibition, publishing, and collection strategies. More recently, she played a key role in the museum’s expansion, including fund-raising efforts, a new off-site collections center; and the reinstallation of the museum’s new 40,000 square-foot wing.
But for Hartigan, who after 17 years at PEM is still renting in Toronto, the return to Salem is much more than a homecoming: It is the fulfillment of a longstanding ambition.
“I’ve had a long-held goal of being a museum director, and, quite frankly, specifically the director of the Peabody Essex Museum,” she said. “There is something decidedly karmic about this for me, because I really do feel like being the director of this particular museum is very much an expression of my destiny.”