Salem's Peabody Essex Museum Steps Into Spotlight With $125M Expansion

Unless you’re a New Englander or seriously artsy, you may have never heard of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. That’s about to change as one of the nation’s best “under the radar” museums steps into the spotlight following the public debut of its $125 million expansion on September 28.

The museum’s new 40,000-square-foot wing features three major galleries, a sun-lit atrium, an entry for school and group tours, linkages to existing galleries and a 5,000-square-foot garden.

“This expansion makes (Peabody Essex Museum) one of the largest museums in the country located outside of a major metro area,” Peabody Essex Museum Director of Communications Whitney Van Dyke said.

Over the last 20 years, the museum has also distinguished itself as one of the fastest-growing art museums in North America. In fact, PEM is now one of the 10 largest museums in the U.S. in terms of size, collection and endowment. What’s more, founded in 1799, it is the country’s oldest continuously operating museum.

PEM’s new wing and renovated galleries offer a distinctive experience designed to heighten feelings of surprise, wonder, delight and reflection. This is not achieved through intuition, it is achieved through science.

PEM is the only art museum in the world employing a full-time neuroscientist.


With a mission to “create experiences of art, culture and creative expression that transform people’s lives,” the museum considers its most essential job “art experience design.” It does this through the use of existing neuroscience research and by generating new findings to inform the design of its exhibitions and galleries.

You won’t be turned into a lab rat when visiting PEM. Others before you already have.

PEM used eye-tracking devices allowing researchers to observe where visitor attention moves when looking at individual works and exhibits. Galvanic skin response monitoring allowed the museum to observe visitors’ emotional responses. Self-reporting helped inform staff what memories visitors formed based on their experiences at PEM.

“PEM is uniquely visitor-focused and our exhibition design strategies work to enhance engagement and heighten emotion, in part, by incorporating findings from the museum’s neuroscience initiative,” Van Dyke said.

PEM’s Maritime Arts collection, the finest of its kind in the country, will now be found on the first floor of the new wing. The sea has—and always will—hold sway over this historic port on the Atlantic Ocean.

On the second floor, PEM’s Asian Export Art collection, foremost in the world, explores cross-cultural exchange as a catalyst for creativity and celebrates the interplay of commerce and creative expression. More than 200 works of art from porcelain, textiles, ivory, silver and much more made by artists in China, Japan, and South Asia, demonstrate the beauty and ingenuity of transcultural objects that are created through blending artistic traditions, materials, and technologies.

For the first time, PEM’s Asian Export Art installation will examine the long tail effect of the opium trade and how it has contributed to today’s opioid crisis. The opioid epidemic has hit the greater Boston area where the PEM calls home especially hard.

“PEM’s galleries address urgent questions as well as universal themes and prompt us to consider our individual human experience within a global context,” Van Dyke said.

Beyond maritime and Asian export art, the museum’s collection stands among the finest of its kind boasting superlative works from around the globe and across time—including American art and architecture, photography, Native American, Oceanic and African art, as well as one of the nation’s most important museum-based collections of rare books and manuscripts. PEM’s Phillips Library collection includes over 3,000 individual volumes by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Salem-born author famous for The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).

PEM also serves as the exclusive East Coast venue for Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction, the most comprehensive examination of this innovative and prolific mid-century American painter. Through approximately 80 paintings and works on paper from 1930 through the end of Hofmann’s life in 1966, explore the artist’s journey into abstraction and his deep contribution to the artistic landscape of New England. Bold, dynamic color bursts off the wall in Hofmann’s vivid, large-scale paintings.

Fifteen miles northeast of downtown Boston, Salem makes for a perfect side trip from Beantown or long weekend no matter where you’re visiting from. In addition to the PEM, Salem’s top draw surrounds its eponymous witch trials.

From the Salem Witch Museum to the Salem Witch Village, Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers, Gallows Hill Museum and Theater, The Witch House, Witch History Museum, Witch Dungeon Museum—you get the point—witches mean business in Salem. These attractions offer various levels of real history and kitsch. Regardless of your interest in witches, the solemn Witch Trials Memorial honors the 20 victims of hysteria which gripped this small town in the early 1690s with dignity.

Be sure to take one of the many ghost, graveyard, supernatural or historical walking tours offered around the city, dialed into your desired level of spookiness.

The House of the Seven Gables and Nathanial Hawthorne birthplace acknowledge the area’s literary past.

Competing with witches for prominence in Salem are mariners.

The Salem Museum, Salem Maritime National Historic Site and schooner “Fame,” a replica 1812 privateer setting sail daily, all transport visitors back to an era before steam. All the seagoing means fresh, local seafood as well.

When it comes to a good time and great art, Salem, Massachusetts and the Peabody Essex Museum take a back seat to no one.

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