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PEM turns cultural perceptions of bats upside down

Resa Blatman's "Small Bat Portrait 1," 2008, from "Bats!," an upcoming multi-sensory exhibit at Peabody Essex Museum.Resa Blatman

They sleep hanging upside down during the day, coming alive as the moon rises. Shrouded in mystery, bats are fascinating creatures that play an integral role in our ecosystem and culture. From Sept. 9 to July 28, 2024, they will be the focus of the “Bats!” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

Visitors can see a small colony of live Egyptian fruit bats, view bat artwork by 12 contemporary artists, and, on opening day, take part in activities, like creating folded paper bats with origami artists Michael G. LaFosse and Richard Alexander and watching painter Rebecca Saylor Sack make a large-scale, double-sided acrylic painting on muslin.


The exhibit is curated by Jane Winchell, the museum’s Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center.

“Bats are really mysterious to a lot of people. I think that’s a breeding ground for misinformation and misconceptions,” Winchell, who had studied bats in graduate school at Boston University, said. “In reality, they are tremendous allies, and truly significant species in ecosystems around the world. That’s one of the things that we bring out in the exhibition — the varied roles that bats play in different environments and the range of perceptions about bats.”

Dr. Alex Becket, director of shelter medicine at Cape Ann Animal Aid, will care for the 10 Egyptian fruit bats that will reside at the PEM for the duration of the exhibit. Becket highlighted the importance of bats to the ecosystem — namely, they eat insects and spread pollen. In New England, there are nine species of bats, among them the endangered little brown bat. Regarding the Egyptian fruit bats at the exhibit, Becket noted their great sense of smell, one of the biggest brain-to-body-weight ratios of any other breed, and their large eyes that enable them to see in low light and echolocation, which is unusual for a fruit-eating bat.


How different cultures relate to bats will be highlighted at the exhibit. “We have some traditional works of art from China, Korea, and Japan that are showing bats as these cute, adorable, whimsical characters, and then being juxtaposed by some of the traditional works [from different cultures]. … We have some representations where the devil has bat wings,” Winchell said.

"Happy, Good Luck Bats" designed and folded by artist Michael G. LaFosseRichard L. Alexander

To demonstrate different perspectives, Winchell invited LaFosse and Alexander, who run an origami studio called Origamido, to create original pieces for the museum. One is called “The Five Happinesses,” with five red origami bats surrounding the Chinese symbol for longevity.

“Fear of bats is not universal in many cultures. They’re actually admired and considered good luck, good fortune,” Alexander said. LaFosse added that the Chinese word for bat is a homonym for the Chinese word for good fortune, and that “stylized bats” will often appear on items like coins, plates, and embroidery. “The motifs are lyrical and joyful,” he said.

Both biologists by training, the artistic pair’s interest in bats was piqued early in life. Through their opening day origami demos at PEM, they hope to spark conversations about the fascinating creatures and share their knowledge about origami. “I think people understand how wood carvings are made, dolls are sewn together, and drawings and paintings are made, but far fewer people understand a lot about origami,” LaFosse said.

PEM's "Bats!" exhibit aims to look at bats from different angles by featuring artists' interpretations of the creatures — including artist Rebecca Saylor Sack's "Presence | Läsnäolo" from her "Shadow Fliers" series.Karen Mauch

Sack, who will also show how her art comes to life opening day, has a longstanding relationship with bats as well. As an artist and the program director of fine arts at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, she created a site-specific project about the Daubenton’s bats that live at the Nautelankoski Museum in Lieto, Finland, in 2022. One of the pieces she had created will be displayed at the PEM.


“Daubenton’s bats are kind of like these little tiny flying balls with duck faces on them,” she said. ”How do you take an animal like that and then ask somebody to reimagine their relationship with that animal? Hopefully, to the extent that when they encounter it again, their first response is not revulsion but actually wonder and excitement.”

Resa Blatman’s fantastical painting “Beauty and the Beasties” is meant to evoke wonder. Blatman said that, with the 10-foot painting blossoming with bats, flamingos, hummingbirds, an ostrich, berries, grapes, and mushrooms, she wanted to capture “explosions of joy and life” in addition to the conflict between humanity and nature. The Baroque-like painting hearkens to a time where animals were sacrificed for clothing and accessories.

“It’s me talking about being empty but full, it’s nature and our control over nature and then beauty,” Blatman said. “There’s all this fecundity and aliveness and birth and fullness. I was working through my process of not being able to have children. So I was painting about it and the bats were a big part of it.”

Around that time, Blatman learned of the white-nose syndrome that was affecting bats in the Northeast, which led her to empathize with them.


In putting on the exhibit, Winchell hopes that people will approach bats with curiosity rather than fear. “In Salem, where there’s such a strong association with Halloween, this is a great opportunity to be having a topic like bats where there’s a [negative] association there and kind of flipping it on its head and saying, ‘You may think this about bats but we’d like to invite you to come in and see live bats and also these works by all these different artists and the fascinating facts about bats that are here to be explored.’”


Sept. 9 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Included with admission. The exhibit will be open through July 28, 2024. Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem. 978-745-9500.