What to do in Salem, Massachusetts: visit The Peabody Essex Museum – one of the most ancient museums in The United States of America, working non-stop since 1799 – to discover the stories and the treasures of the traders and explorers that leaving from right Salem doubled both Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope to reach the East, Oceania and Africa between the end of the 1700s and a good part of the 1800s.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Salem, Massachusetts, is unavoidably that period of mass hysteria at the end of the 1600s known as “Witch Hunt”, that marked so much the collective imaginary in the following decades that it turned the town progressively into the “Witch town” par excellence.
However, not many people know that beyond the sad history of the young women accused of sorcery – it exists a downright tourist trail about it, and today it develops through the Witch Trails Memorial, the Witch Salem Museum and the Witch House – this charming town in Massachusetts gathers in itself the most authentic maritime spirit of New England and its complicated and fascinating history.
An era 200 years long. From the commercial trade towards the East as far as the foundation of the East India Marine Society. Today it’s possible to go over it entirely thanks to the very beautiful PEM – The Peabody Essex Museum.
The origins of The Peabody Essex Museum date back to the foundation of the East India Marine Society in 1799. It is an association of sea Captains and ship-owners of Salem that for decades crossed repeatedly the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn to reach Africa, Oceania and the East.
The society foundation’s chart included among the several notes a disposition for the institution of “a cabinet of artificial and natural curiosities” recovered during the voyages. That one today we’d consider in all respects a museum, the initial core of the actual Peabody Essex Museum.
Over time the members of the East India Marine Society have contributed in enriching the museum with a wide and variegated collection: navigation instruments, maps, potteries, statues, paintings, manuscripts, posters and vintage newspapers, furniture and fabrics coming from the most distant and remote places in the world.
In 1825 the society and the museum moved to the East India Marine Hall building that still today contains the original display cases and some of the very first objects collected.
In 2003 the facility was widened with an ambitious and innovative glass and bricks building planned by the architect Moshe Safdie. The aim is reflecting the history of the architecture of Salem with the addition of a contemporary touch. The curved roof glass of the hall – recalling ideally the original village of the 1600s – allows the natural light to enter creating an airing space and definite trails leading the visitors to the different exposition galleries.
The tour of The Peabody Essex Museum – one of the most ancient ones in the United States of America, working non-stop since 1799 – will allow you to discover the stories and the incredible treasures that traders, vessels Captains and explorers took back home from the Oriental India, Oceania and Africa leaving right from Salem between the end of the 1700s and a good part of the 1800s.
In 1992 the PEM (The Peabody Essex Museum) – born by the fusion of the preexisting collections of the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum – counted over 840.000 works about the art in general and the maritime history specifically.
Namely American art, Asian art, Oceanic art and African art, besides two big libraries with 400.000 books, manuscripts and documents, and even 22 historical buildings.
Over time, the collection has grown exponentially as far as including 1,8 million works.
Today The Peabody Essex Museum is considered one among the most precious museums of Asian arts in the USA, with proper masterpieces coming from China, Japan, Oceania and Africa.
The Japanese collection – among the richest and most precious ones in the United States of America – includes also the fascinating Yin Yu Tang. It is the only and unique house of the Qing period dismantled, taken away from the motherland and entirely rebuilt inside the PEM. With its 16 rooms and the original furniture, the dwelling offers cues and deepening never seen before about the Chinese art, architecture and culture.
You can download the introductory brochure of the museum with maps of the collections divided into floors. Click here.
The PEM – The Peabody Essex Museum – is located in the old town of Salem, in the very central Essex Street. Street number 161 the main access. The museum is opened Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.
Reckon at least 3 hours for the tour.
Find here any necessary info to buy tickets and/or book a guided tour.
Tickets (with scheduled timetable) to visit the Yin Yu Tang are available at the admission desk together with the audio guides (also in Italian).
For any further info, cues and useful tips about what to do in Salem, I’d like to invite you reading my detailed guidebook – here – and looking up the official website of the local tourism – Destination Salem.