POWERS_Keith.jpg

Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Peabody Essex Museum gets bigger, again.

The new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum, adjacent to the original East India Marine Hall (at left).

The new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum, adjacent to the original East India Marine Hall (at left).

By almost any measure, the Peabody Essex Museum epitomizes a successful modern museum. In unveiling its second new expansion in two decades—40,000 square feet tacked on to the west side of the original East India Marine Hall—PEM has all but erased its distant past as a storehouse for maritime collectibles.

Superseded it, more accurately. The expansion, completed by Ennead Architects, will house re-imagined galleries for the Asian Export and Maritime collections, and create space for permanent displays of fashion and design. The new space has effected the old space as well; adjacent to the new addition, refurbished galleries for contemporary Indian art, Japanese export art, and rotating exhibitions are also gradually being unveiled. A tiny gallery dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s papers serves as a reminder of the historic Phillips Library collection, which has been relocated off-site. 

The brutal gray exterior does little to create an organic appearance to the museum’s exterior—from the outside, it’s impossible to tell that the wing is a continuation of the museum. But inside, the PEM has created new space focused on several important collections.

That may seem an obvious thing to do, but recent museum expansions have been about visitors, not about art. Cafés, shops, lounge areas—PEM has those things, and wisely chose to build additional space for its vast collections this time.

The $125M addition—don’t worry, PEM raised a staggering $650M in retired CEO Dan Monroe’s final campaign—sits blandly in East India Square. Inside, the practical benefits become apparent. The vast maritime collection gets a substantial upgrade on the first floor, as does the Asian export collection on the second. Both collections show older works and contemporary acquisitions—some of it arranged imaginatively, some of it cluttered into corners like anyone’s basement. But lots to see.

On the top floor, fashion takes over, in both serious and un-serious ways. Labeling plays a part: near an arrangement of sofas and chairs a sign says “Support Us”; alongside bicycles a label reads “Transport Us.” All of the galleries, which will be re-configured over time with additional works from these collections, have snaky, inviting walkways and imaginative displays to highlight the works. 

Since it is situated far from the main entrance, visitors will have to pass through the entire museum to reach the new wing. A brilliant garden sits at the heart of the wing, even further from the direct traffic pattern. Visitors would do well to seek it out. But since it is surrounded now by galleries for new exhibitions, visitors will be instinctively drawn toward the new space.

Currently, “Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0”—a light installation—fills the adjacent East India Marine Hall. Vanessa Platacis’s “Taking Place”—an extensive, inviting wall painting—graces Bartlett Hall. Yoan Capote’s powerful “Immanence”—a giant steel sculpture of Fidel Castro by the Cuban artist, fabricated from rusted door hinges—looms in another entry gallery. “Kimsooja: Archive of Mind” fills another walkway. All of these invite visitors to continue on to view the new permanent exhibitions.

The new wing at the Peabody Essex Museum is now open to the public. For information visit pem.org or call 978-745-9500.

Museum of Fine Arts 19th Amendment exhibition, Women Take the Floor. Reviewed