With 15,000 square feet of gallery space to fill in the $125 million new wing that opens at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem later this month, it’s no surprise the chief curator thought long and hard about which artifacts to place where.
What you might not guess, however, is that Lynda Roscoe Hartigan and her staff also devoted time to walking up and down staircases of different dimensions, trying to identify the ideal tread size.
“What height and depth of step would make a large staircase most comfortable and inviting as you enter the wing?” Hartigan, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, asked herself.
The question is key to how the Peabody Essex Museum leadership approached the new space — always with an eye toward not just what they wanted to showcase but how visitors can best engage with the exhibits.
“Every individual has a different attention span,” Hartigan said. “We [at the museum] want to think everything we exhibit is so fabulous that people will be on high alert all the time. But that’s not realistic. So we have to figure out how to elicit someone’s attention and engage their emotions to create a meaningful memory.”
Reflecting this approach, Ennead Architects designed the new 40,000-square-foot wing so that interspersed with fascinating artifacts and works of art are sunlit spaces with comfortable furniture.
“It is important for people to find places where they can sit and talk with strangers or friends, or find peaceful moments of respite and reflection,” Hartigan said. “That creates a sense of immersion and involvement, rather than the feeling that you are simply proceeding from one thing to the next.”
With separate floors for maritime art, Asian export art, and fashion and design, the new wing opening Sept. 28 substantially broadens the scope of what the museum offers. “It’s not a treasures-oriented approach,” Hartigan said. “We didn’t build this just to have a bigger collection, but to create an increasingly meaningful experience.”
The museum’s collection is indeed vast: 1.8 million works of art and culture; two libraries with more than 400,000 books, manuscripts, and documents; and 22 historic buildings, including the only complete Qing Dynasty house outside China.
Melding the indoors and the outdoors was a priority of the project.For visitors who want a breath of fresh air between galleries, adjacent to the new wing is a 5,000-square-foot outdoor garden, with 79 species of plants from Asia and the Americas, intricate stonework, and a water sculpture.
“Part of PEM’s mission is to enhance people’s opportunities and abilities to understand their place in the world, the value of connection, the importance of creativity in our lives,” Hartigan said.
Inclusivity and respect for diversity also are critical to the museum’s mission. For example, the fashion and design gallery — created in response to the soaring popularity of the several temporary fashion exhibits that the museum has hosted over the past few years — includes an exhibit on body modification, covering everything from corsets to tattoos to the lip expansions practiced in some African tribes.
Inclusivity also means recognizing that many artifacts carry their own cultural significance. The 6-foot-tall statue of the Hawaiian god Kuka‘ilimoku that looms near a window in the new wing is made of wood, “but to native Hawaiians, he is a living entity,” Hartigan said.
And so before he could be installed in his new location, a delegation of four native Hawaiian cultural practitioners performed a welcome ceremony for the statue, and he was positioned in accordance with cultural beliefs, at a specified elevation and facing west toward his island home.
Recognizing the context of a piece of art is just as important as admiring the work itself, Hartigan said. “Rather than imposing a viewpoint, we want to understand both what the object meant when it was created and what it might suggest to us today in terms of thinking about our place in the world, which in turn leads to questions about how we relate to other people.”
And that can mean delving below the surface in unexpected ways. The new Asian export gallery displays an enormous range of Chinese art, but as Hartigan explained it, “Many of those objects originated in cultural interaction, and that interaction was not always a positive thing. The opium wars were a direct result of commerce and power struggles between Asians and Europeans. And today we have an opioid crisis.”
To provide that context, a video within the exhibit offers an overview of the opium wars.
Along with the construction came a chance to transform some existing spaces within the museum. The pass-through that leads from the main atrium, designed in 2003, to the new section was previously underused. Hartigan thinks it was because it has low ceilings and lacks natural light, but her team looked at it as another chance to entice visitors.
After much contemplation, they decided to use it for an exhibit called Powerful Figures and chose eight objects to reflect different aspects of power, ranging from gender dynamics to socioeconomic differences to spirituality.
Seven of the pieces already were part of the museum’s collection; the only new acquisition in the exhibit is an installation called “Weight” by contemporary African-American artist Alison Saar. It depicts a young girl on a swing surrounded by images that could connote domestic servitude or slavery.
“Museums are sometimes labeled ‘attractions,’ ” Hartigan remarked. “We do not consider ourselves an attraction but rather an opportunity and an environment in which to foster meaningful experiences. Taking on the mission of being a transformative resource is bold. But we are asking no less than what we can do, given our rich collection and the creativity of our staff, to advance human existence.”
If you go . . .
■ In addition to the new wing, visitors to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem may tour impressive collections of Indian, Japanese, and Native American art and photography, take part in participatory art projects, see videos describing the histories and stories behind various collections, and tour the Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang.
■ Museum admission is $20 adults; $18 seniors; $12 students. Separate admission to Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese House is $6. Admission for general entrance is 25 percent off through Sept. 21.
■ A public celebration for the new wing takes place Saturday, Sept. 28, and Sunday, Sept. 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; general museum admission is free all day.
■ The official opening ceremony begins Saturday at 10 a.m.; both days will feature live music, art-making, and performances.
■ The museum, located at 161 Essex St., is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays (except holidays). For more information, visit pem.org.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .