Thursday, July 2, 2015

Travel Journal: Peabody Essex Museum

If everything is bigger in Texas, then everything is just a little bit smaller in New England. This is especially true of the pockets of Native culture quietly persevering across the region. 

Small tribal museums are tucked away in towns all around the Northeast if you go looking: The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum in Mashpee, MA, the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, RI, the Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville, CT, the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner, NH, and the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, ME. [Please let me know if I'm missing anyone! I'd be grateful for the info.] 

On the other hand, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Ledyard, CT, is a substantial, anchoring institution for the region. And a few other prominent organizations have important presentations on Native culture within their programs. The Wampanoag Homesite at the Plimoth Plantation comes to mind.

One little gem within a larger institution is the current Native American art exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. It's quite small - only one room of the museum - and only a portion of their whole Native American art collection, the rest of which is not on display. Even their Oceanic Art collection, into which they categorize their South Pacific Native art, is not currently on display. However, the pieces I was able to enjoy there were definitely worth the morning I spent driving up to Salem to see them.

East India Marine Hall, the original exhibit hall

As I wrote in a previous postThe Peabody Essex is one of the oldest continuously operating museums in the United States and has one of the oldest collections of Native American artThe PEM got its start in 1799 when the East India Marine Company was chartered from Salem's community of shipping captains with the provision to create a museum from the interesting things they brought home from their world travels.

Richard Orr's model of Cleopatra's Barge, the first private ocean-going yacht built in America. Constructed in Salem in 1816, it was eventually sold to King Kamehameha II, who renamed it Ha'aheo o Hawai'i ("Pride of Hawaii"). A life-size recreation of the Barge's stateroom, including some original furnishings, can also be seen at the PEM.

As a result of this shipping and trading history, the collection is not representative of local tribes, but is made up primarily of art and cultural artifacts from the Pacific region (in addition to their larger collections of maritime and Asian export art). Much of their work focuses on pieces that were created by indigenous people specifically for trade, and then relating that historical art to contemporary pieces from the same tribes.

Heiltsuk dancer's mask from coastal British Columbia about 1845.
photo from

The current exhibit is Raven's Many Gifts: Native Art of the Northwest Coast. It showcases traditional and contemporary art from Pacific Northwest tribes, focusing on themes of "Living Stories, Family Connections and Market Innovations." The exhibit explains central concepts of Northwest tribal art, such as formlines, the dark bands of color that outline the image, and the prevalence of family crests and insignia, most of which include specific animals such as Raven.

Richard Hunt and John Livingston's piece Door (1984) illustrates some of these concepts. Killer Whale and Raven are commonly featured in traditional stories and family crests. Killer Whale, carved by Livingston on the outside of the door, sometimes embodies the souls of deceased chiefs, and Hunt painted Raven on the inside of the door. Raven appears on his Kwakwaka'wakw father's family crest. The art on the door is a continuance of the storytelling about these animal characters and their connections to the artists' families.

It was once common for PNW tribes to tattoo their family crest motifs on their faces and bodies, but when missionaries and other colonists in the 19th Century started pressuring them to stop, Native people created jewelry like these bracelets to display their family crests without attracting the negative attention of their colonizers.

In the 1800s, Haida artisans started making fancier forms of their traditional pipes to sell to sailors and travelers as curios or souvenirs. The boar on this pipe may have been influenced by the figureheads of the ships and the houses are Euro-American style to appeal to their customers.

One of the most beloved pieces from their previous and highly successful Shapeshifting exhibit is now on display as part of Raven's Many Gifts. Nicholas Galanin's (Tlingit/Aleut) "Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan part 1 and part 2," which translates to "We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care" (2006), is comprised of two videos, one of a breakdancer over traditional Tlingit music and the other of a traditional dancer in regalia dancing to EDM. The piece is also online, and can be viewed here.

Galanin's Bear Mask Vol. 9 (2006) is also in the exhibit. The piece is a modern twist on traditional Tlingit woodcarving by using laser cut pieces of paper to form the mask.

This exhibit, like PEM's other recent Native Art exhibits, pushes itself to turn a very old collection of curios from white traders and explorers into a modern conversation with living Native artists that discusses the meaning and self-representations within the classic forms and contemporary twists in tribal art. As former Deputy Director and Curator of Native American Art John R. Grimes said in his essay, "Curiosity, Cabinets, and Knowledge: A perspective on the Native American Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum,":

The new paradigm opens the locked doors of the cabinet, allowing us to move beyond possessive knowledge of objects and admitting new relational knowledge and aesthetic experience.

My only disappointment might be that my tuna wrap and can of soda in the Atrium Café were underwhelming. There is a fancier Garden Restaurant with beautiful outdoor seating in the Asian Garden and Terrace, but I had to pick my kids up from school and didn't have time for the linen-napkin treatment so I can't comment on the quality. Considering the rising popularity of Native cuisine and the fact that no place in Boston is doing it yet (the Pequot Museum has the Pequot Café), the PEM might consider treating patrons to some truly local fare. Don't mind me suggesting that Sherry Pocknett has a catering company in Mashpee that specializes in traditional Wampanoag cuisine! I might drive up just for lunch if I could get smoked mussels and johnnycakes with cranberry chutney.

Beautiful spot for lunch, though.

Raven's Many Gifts: Native Art of the Northwest Coast is on display at the Peabody Essex until December 27, 2015.


  1. That looks an awesome place. I'm gonna try to visit it. I'm pretty sure me and my friends are going to love it. Try visiting Art Museum in Manila, you'll love it too. Anyway, Thanks for sharing!

  2. This museum looks such a wonderful place to visit and after reading this post, travelers would also be interested to take a tour of this nice museum. best park and fly deals