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Peabody Essex Museum breaks ground on expansion

A rendering of the Peabody Essex Museum’s expansion and renovation, looking west on Essex Street in Salem.Peabody Essex Museum

When the Peabody Essex Museum breaks ground on its long-awaited new wing Friday, it will launch a project that will add three floors of gallery space, encompass a vaulting atrium, and — when it opens in 2019 — place the Salem institution among the 20 largest art museums in the country.

But the physical expansion project, which includes the 40,000-square-foot wing and a more than 100,000-square-foot off-site collections facility, is just one element in what museum officials say will be a radical reimagining of the entire institution. Over the next five years, the museum plans to reconceive every one of its galleries, drawing on the lessons of neuroscience as it blurs traditional lines between contemporary and traditional art, while also creating novel spaces devoted to experimentation, meditation, and even sound.


The end result, said Dan Monroe, the Peabody Essex’s director and chief executive, will be a museum that emphasizes the interconnectedness of cultures, takes a broad view of creativity, and features programming that explores the intersection of art, the humanities, and sciences.

“By 2022 virtually everything at PEM in terms of the experience of our collections will be new and very different than it has been in the past,” said Monroe. “We’re basically changing everything.”

The expansion is made possible by the museum’s ongoing $650 million fund-raising campaign, which aims to deliver $350 million to the endowment, $200 million for physical expansion, and $100 million for infrastructure improvements. Monroe said the campaign had so far raised more than $570 million.

The new wing, located on Essex Street at the site of the Asian Garden, will bring the museum’s overall gallery space to more than 100,000 square feet, which Peabody Essex officials say will make it one of the 20 largest art museums in the country. Designed by Ennead Architects, the structure will feature an atrium that highlights the museum’s original building, the East India Marine Hall. A new garden, designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, will be nearby.


Deputy director Lynda Roscoe Hartigan said the $16 million gallery installation project would draw on departments across the museum to create a more “visitor-centric” institution.

Hartigan said that while visitors will still be able to explore the art of a specific culture, many galleries will emphasize relationships across borders and time periods, mingling contemporary with traditional works and highlighting areas of influence between different countries and cultures.

“We’re definitely encouraging the curators to go shopping in each other’s collections,” said Hartigan, who’s spearheading the effort.

Hartigan added that the museum is also planning to incorporate multisensory experiences that may involve smell, sound, taste, and emotion. The museum has previously experimented with these ideas, including live dancers during the recent “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture” exhibit and redolent spices at the entrance of “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age.”

The museum now wants to take those experiments further, incorporating findings from modern brain science about emotion, attention, and learning.

“How do emotions encourage us to think and learn?” asked Hartigan. “How do you attract and sustain attention? What’s distracting from people being really able to focus and engage?”

Hartigan said they hoped to move beyond the didactic wall label and were exploring the power of story, personal narrative, and stimulating questions as ways to enhance audience engagement.

“How we see is dictated by our brain, so to really understand how the mechanics and processes by which we operate as a human mind and the role that emotion plays in that is something we’re looking hard at,” said Hartigan.


She said the sound gallery may contain instruments and objects that make or imply sound. The experimentation gallery could include working artists who use the gallery as a studio, programming that incorporates food, or perhaps art-making by the public. And the meditation gallery will likely provide an area where visitors can reflect on the collection and explore library and archival materials.

The changes will be phased in, with the first galleries opening in 2018. Museum officials said the new wing would likely contain galleries devoted to maritime art, photography, Asian export art, and design and fashion.

Monroe said the off-site collections center, set for completion in 2018, will provide conservation and study space for the museum’s 1.8 million object collection.

“What we want above all else is an art experience that’s not so much focused on telling you what to see and what’s important, but an art experience where people really have a chance to explore in new ways for themselves,” he said. “Ultimately, we would like the people we serve to view the museum as part of their identity.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.