SALEM — In 2013, when Brian Kennedy was the director of the Toledo Museum of Art, he gave a talk to the Irish Museums Association called “The Porous Museum.” In line with the thinking of the day, it was a high-minded notion about eroding traditional barriers between institution and audience, and ceding intellectual authority — at least to some degree — to be more responsive to what a museumgoer might actually want to see.
As a metaphor, it worked. But Kennedy may not have imagined he’d be living it to a literal extent in his main-floor director’s office at the Peabody Essex Museum. On a recent sunny afternoon 10 weeks into his tenure, Essex Street, the city of Salem’s broad, brick-paved pedestrian promenade, teemed with life just inches beyond the slim panes of his wraparound windows. An opera singer warbled, loudly off-key; strollers ferrying wailing children bumped along at desk height, which is roughly where his windowsill falls.
It’s a ringside seat to the city’s constantly-passing show. “You’ll see Dracula wandering by, occasionally,” Kennedy smiled. Not surprising for a city world-renowned as Halloween culture’s ground zero. But one passer-by came a little closer than most: A T-shirt seller named Charlotte, who set up inches from Kennedy’s window.
After three weeks of close contact — her preening in the reflective glass, just a few feet from his desk; her loud phone conversations easily penetrating the thin veneer between them — Kennedy went out to introduce himself. When she asked what he did “in there,” he demurred. “A little of everything,” he said.
He came away grateful for the exchange. “What it does,” he said, his voice deep and rich, and with an Irish lilt, “is it makes it all very real. People make the world happen, and they make a museum happen. We’d do well not to forget that.”
Kennedy, who just arrived from a nine-year stint in Toledo, finds himself both in good company in Salem and with a hard act to follow. PEM spent years carving a reputation for itself as a risk-taker among frequently stodgier peers, happily experimenting with unique — and sometimes head-scratching — ways of pulling audiences closer to its vast collection of art and antiquities (PEM might be the only art museum in America to employ a full-time neuroscientist to better understand the neurology of viewer experiences).
The person most responsible for that, Dan Monroe, retired in July after 26 years as PEM director. (Over the same span, Kennedy did stints assistant director of the National Gallery of Ireland before becoming director at the National Gallery of Australia and the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College before Toledo).
Monroe arrived in 1993 with a mandate to merge the Peabody Museum of Salem — a struggling local concern of mostly maritime relics — with the Essex Institute, a “literary, historical and scientific society,” as it described itself, with a museum of its own and a scattering of historic houses throughout Salem’s core.
Monroe came from the Portland Museum of Art in Oregon to find an endowment of $35 million and a reputation that barely registered on the national stage. Now, PEM is one of the country’s top 15 art museums by square footage and has a healthy exchange of objects and exhibitions with both national and international peers. Monroe left it with an endowment of a half-billion dollars and 580,000 square feet of gallery space — 40,000 of it housed in a brand-new, $125 million wing, freshly opened this week.
Monroe’s departure marked the end of a long building phase that more than tripled the original museum’s footprint and swallowed a large chunk of Essex Street (The Peabody’s home in the historic East India Marine Society’s granite hall is the city’s historical nexus).
So PEM, under Kennedy’s tenure, will hurt neither for space nor funding. What he inherits, more than anything, is opportunity. “It’s essential for PEM to be extremely creative,” said Monroe, on the phone from his high desert retirement retreat in New Mexico, “to always be very different from others in our field.”
It’s something Kennedy’s been quick to apprehend. “For us, I think the question is ‘How can we look at this extraordinary opportunity that combines 580,000 square feet under a roof, 22 historic houses, historic buildings, and what are we going to do with it all?’ ” Kennedy asked. “We all want to be museums for everyone, theoretically, but that rarely happens. The real question is, can we be museums for anyone? What can we do that makes people feel welcome?”
Ten weeks in, it’s a little early for grand plans — Kennedy joked that, this week, most of his job was to “stay out of the way” as staff busied themselves with opening the new wing to the public Saturday. But a sense of what he might have in mind has begun to take shape.
Siddhartha Shah, PEM’s curator of Indian and South Asian Art, recalled an early meeting with Kennedy where hierarchies seemed to evaporate. “I was supposed to be giving a quick 20 minute overview, but he invited me to stay with all the senior executives as the meeting progressed,” Shah said. “To me that really said something — that we all have a seat at the table here, and that everyone’s point of view matters. What a great way to build trust from the get-go.”
One of Shah’s tasks of the next year is a complete reinstall of the museum’s Modern Indian art collection. It will necessarily include M.F. Husain , an artist whose work was famously controversial for its religious and political content, sparking hundreds of lawsuits and at least as many death threats. “I told Brian, ‘I need to know that you have my back on this,’ ” Shah said. “And he suggested holding a symposium to really open up a conversation on the work and what it meant. I was worried about a painting, and he was thinking about ways to deepen people’s understanding of the circumstances. That felt really significant.”
Kennedy is hardwired for just such occasions, said Halona Norton-Westbrook, the Toledo Museum of Art’s director of curatorial affairs. “He stimulates everyone’s creativity in a positive way, through conversation,” she said. “But he also thinks about what the field needs. He’s very holistic that way.”
Hence, perhaps, “The Porous Museum,” in ways both metaphoric and not. One of Kennedy’s personal interests is in visual literacy, an academic field that knits together learning and visual experience, and gives audiences, in theory, a more holistic experience of a museum’s content. It became a priority during his time in Toledo, where “multi-sensory, immersive” installations were important, Norton-Westbrook said.
Whatever form it takes, experimentation is warranted. According to the National Endowment for the Arts’s 2017 survey of public participation in the arts, museum and gallery attendance was flat between 2012 and 2017, with about a quarter of all American adults having visited an art museum in the previous year. Some might see that as a comfort, particularly in an increasingly digital era where the impetus to stay home with your screen continues to grow.
At the same time, a museum’s core offering — of enlightenment, let’s say — faces tough competition against a deluge of on-demand hand-held amusements. It all prompts a ground-up re-think.
“The death rate of museums is essentially zero,” Kennedy said. “We design ourselves to stick around, above all. Should that be the priority? In some ways yes — we’re entrusted with extraordinary heritage, and with its care. But should we lead with that? And how do we decide who gets access to it, and in what ways? These are the kinds of big thoughts we need to entertain.”
Kennedy’s right in line with current thinking, as institutions all over the world consider how to be more open and responsive to the people who come see them. That means, in a very clear way, that the museum’s vast riches reveal truths about both the cultures they came from and the acquisitive nature of the people who collected them.
“Seeing things from another point of view is an essential practice,” Kennedy said, something the PEM collection, with its global breadth, can do very well. At the same time, it can uncover ugly truths about colonial agendas and their often ruthless execution. The puritanical persecution of witches — Salem’s claim to fame — are a slim iota of wrongdoing next to the global pillaging of the Western mercantile class throughout America’s early years.
Kennedy mentioned a proud aspect of local Salem lore — that slavery never took place here. “This city, named for ‘Shalom,’ meant peace-making — it embodied the sense of ‘good people,’” he said. “But I do know, in the documentation we have, there are some incredible stories of enslavement.” He paused. “I can’t say what’s true and what’s not. I just know that has to be part of the discussion. We won’t be not talking about these things, that much I can say,” he said. “We’re going to be talking about them a lot more.”
If there’s a notion to be gleaned from PEM’s new director, that would be it. “Our first responsibility is to be human beings — to be present to ourselves and to each other,” he said. “How do we bring the past into the present to make a future we can all live with? That’s the task. Otherwise, why are we here?”
NEW WING OPENING CELEBRATION
At Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Salem St., Salem. Sept. 28-29, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. 978-745-9500 or pem.org.