Museum History

Museum at Night

Museum History

A Museum of Art and Culture

The roots of the Peabody Essex Museum date to the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society, an organization of Salem captains and supercargoes who had sailed beyond either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. The society’s charter included a provision for the establishment of a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities,” which is what we today would call a museum. Society members brought to Salem a diverse collection of objects from the northwest coast of America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, India and elsewhere. By 1825, the society moved into its own building, East India Marine Hall, which today contains the original display cases and some of the very first objects collected.

Moshe Safdie: World-renowned architect, urban planner

Moshe Safdie designed the imaginative glass and brick building expansion for PEM in 2003 to reflect Salem's architectural history with contemporary flair. The result weaves together a building of many parts into a seamless, inspired structure for viewing art and culture from around the world.

The dramatic Atrium with a soaring glass roof is the central gathering place, akin to the traditional village green. The curved glass of the roof allows natural light into the Atrium, creating an airy space and walkways that lead visitors into galleries, the Art Studios and the performance center in Morse Auditorium. Five diverse roof silhouettes or "buildings" that comprise the outer brick wall echo the shapes and forms of local architecture.

Safdie’s expansive portfolio includes the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Habitat ‘67 experimental housing in Montreal, and the United States Courthouse in Springfield, Mass.

For a closer look at Safdie and his projects, visit msafdie.com

Origins of a name

The East India Marine Society was founded in Salem, in Essex County, Massachusetts. Salem was also home to the Essex Historical Society (founded in 1821), which celebrated the area’s rich community history, and the Essex County Natural History Society (founded in 1833), which focused on the county’s natural wonders. In 1848, these two organizations merged to form the Essex Institute (the “Essex” in the Peabody Essex Museum’s name). This consolidation brought together extensive and far-ranging collections, including natural specimens, ethnological objects, books and historical memorabilia, all focusing on the area in and around Essex County.

In the late 1860s, the Essex Institute refined its mission to the collection and presentation of regional art, history and architecture. In so doing, it transferred its natural history and archaeology collections to the East India Marine Society’s descendent organization, the Peabody Academy of Science (the “Peabody”). In turn, the Peabody, renamed for its great benefactor, the philanthropist George Peabody, transferred its historical collections to the Essex.

In the early 20th century, the Peabody Academy of Science changed its name to the Peabody Museum of Salem and continued to focus on collecting international art and culture. Capitalizing on growing interest in early American architecture and historic preservation, the Essex Institute acquired many important historic houses and was at the forefront of historical interpretation.

With their physical proximity, closely connected boards and overlapping collections, the possibility of consolidating the Essex and the Peabody had been discussed over the years. After in-depth studies showed the benefits of such a merger, the consolidation of these two organizations into the new PEM was effected in July 1992. The museum possessed extraordinary collections — more than 840,000 works of art and culture featuring maritime art and history; American art; Asian, Oceanic, and African art; Asian export art; two large libraries with over 400,000 books, manuscripts, and documents; and 22 historic buildings. Today’s collection has grown to include 1.8 million works and Yin Yu Tang, the only complete Qing Dynasty house outside China.

True to the spirit of its past, PEM is dedicated to creating a museum experience that celebrates art and the world in which it was made. By presenting art and culture in new ways, by linking past and present, and by embracing artistic and cultural achievements worldwide, the museum offers unique opportunities to explore a multilayered and interconnected world of creative expression.