I was vacationing in Burlington, Vermont, when the Peabody Essex Museum formally opened their new wing. Always game for an opening, I flew across three states just as fall color was starting to ripen.
I traveled with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation since I was wondering if this mania for expansion, which has taken so many museums by storm, had also bewitched one of my favorite museums — already, in my opinion, in full flight without needing an extra wing.
I needn’t have feared. As if a portent of good fortune, I arrived thinking that the opening was over, when to my g reat joy I found that the food hadn’t even been served y et. A s I w as tired and hungry, the rest of the evening sort of disappeared into a frenzy of dipping, sipping, chewing and mumbling as I took a first look of the new facilities.
Fortunately, I had made a reservation at the Clipper Ship Inn — one of the few old-style motels with old-style prices in Salem that I’ve found. As a result, I awoke all chipper to a sunny day the next morning and renewed anticipation for my return to PEM.
I wasn’t disappointed. Yankee sea captains had returned from profitable voyages to the exotic East with trophies of every sort that they deeded to ancestors and the public. Before the new wing came, these trophies were hung high on the walls of the venerable old building that had served these intrepid merchant mariners as a bank and insurance company. They made out, in every way, very well. And now that their trophies have been brought down to eye level, the spectacle of their loot has been improved by canny pairings and electronic enhancements for modern onlookers.
I had loved the old marine hall, but this new restructuring won me over in a few feet. Expecting to breeze through all three floors of the new wing, I entered the f irst only to be stopped and turned around by the style and substance of an opening exhibit.
The might of Western commerce was forcefully and dramatically suggested by a ship’s figurehead of two horse’s heads; wild manes flowing in either direction; nostrils flaring as if scenting already, a good, solid deal at journey’s end at port; necks straining with muscled wills.
First prize? Hardly. On either side, challenging the vision and skill of this singular carving, were two prows of native ships. One had to bend down and look closely to be astonished by an altogether other vision and skill in wood carving the vision of a smaller empire certainly, but one powerful enough to dissipate the beating of horses’ hooves on water and leave you alone with just the sound of ocean waves, and yourself, well seated to brave them.
The ensorcelling sound of the ocean, I noticed as I left this first exhibit, was electronic, but so well done it only enhanced a dream induced by art well done. After all, PEM is located in Salem where sorcery is coin of the realm.
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