Today, I stand at the helm of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) as its first woman Executive Director and CEO in a time of considerable social upheaval and change. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us all a new lens through which to view our past, our present state, and our future. It has altered our relationship to public and private space; it has disrupted the way we gather and how we process societal change. Our fragile yet interconnected human experience is more felt and seen than ever before. Despite the numerous challenges of our day, I firmly believe that this is a moment for museums to be bold and innovative, to demonstrate the role that art and culture play in grounding, gathering, and empowering us all.
The Peabody Essex Museum is a remarkable and storied organization. Something was afoot at the time of its founding in August 1799 in Salem, Massachusetts, in the newly formed United States. The Declaration of Independence had been signed a mere twenty-three years earlier. Through a boom in international trade, Salem became a port city of enormous influence. It was well on its way to hosting the country’s greatest concentration of notable early American houses and mansions and an entrepreneurial spirit fueled its prosperity. The year saw the passing of two influential figures: George Washington, the nation’s first President, and the Qianlong Emperor, the powerful, erudite ruler of China’s Qing dynasty. It also witnessed the birth of a singular American institution, the East India Marine Society.
The founders of the East India Marine Society were highly successful sea captains and business agents, each of whom had travelled beyond South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope or Chile’s Cape Horn. The society embraced social and financial benevolence for mariners and their families as one of its goals and held the strong conviction that Americans would benefit from access to wondrous objects from around the world. They created a “cabinet” or a “museum of natural and artificial curiosities” that has through many evolutions and revolutions become the Peabody Essex Museum, not just the country’s oldest continuously operating collecting museum but now also a leading site of innovation and creativity.
In September 2019, just two years ago, PEM celebrated the opening of our new 15,000 square-foot wing. The museum’s singular collection of global art and culture could now be seen with fresh eyes. We developed interpretive installations of our collections of maritime art, Asian export art and fashion and design to address recurring themes of human experience as well as the urgent questions of our time. We examined Salem’s role in the opium trade in the Asian Export gallery, probed the intersection of the slave trade and maritime experience, and addressed the rising need for sustainable fashion practices in our new fashion and design gallery. And then, six months later … the pandemic and social unrest erupted, bringing with them a confounding host of issues.
We joined cultural institutions around the world when PEM closed its doors for the first time in its 220+ year history to attend to the public safety needs of the pandemic. How was a museum to meaningfully engage with and support people now? PEM pivoted quickly and the staff took programs and engagement online. Stories from the museum’s collections and exhibitions were shared virtually and teams produced more videos, podcasts, and lectures than ever before. The popular PEM Pals reading program became accessible to toddlers and their caregivers around the globe, and anyone, anywhere could join us virtually with a yoga instructor beneath a giant radiant contemporary light- and- shadow installation by contemporary artist Anila Agha. The museum offered COVID vaccinations and became a community testing site. We provided PPE to area hospitals, helped fundraise for Salem’s food pantry, and hosted local families in our historic gardens to plant alongside our gardener as part of a new Wellness Initiative.
In these intervening years, it’s become clear to me that museums need to be daring, caring, and sharing—as living, breathing, trusted change agents and partners. Regardless of their focus, museums need to be inclusive, empowering resources for people to make meaning of what they’re seeing, feeling, and wondering about as they navigate this increasingly complicated world. In the post-pandemic existence that we are all trying to imagine, fortifying ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually assumes even greater significance if we are to address existing and emerging issues with resilience and resolve.
A powerful way to do that is through creative expression. As part of its new Climate + Environment initiative, PEM is presenting a multi-year series of exhibitions and programs about the urgent challenges of climate change. We are doing this to encourage understanding and to spark action. Together, with our community, we are exploring sustainable practices, environmental justice, and more. Programming will feature youth activist voices, performing artists and scientists, as well as collaborations with community organizations and initiatives on coastal erosion and climate action.
Museums need to listen to their communities and be responsive to their needs, hopes and desires. We need to create a place to come together and discuss and move toward a greater understanding of ourselves and one another. Human connection is more important than ever and museums can become conduits for meaningful exchange and catalysts for new ideas and solutions.
I have long been drawn to American art, especially the work of modern, self-taught, and Black artists. The question of what it means to be American and how we creatively express it grounded my early career at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and continues to engage me. Early in 2022 we will open galleries that integrate and juxtapose the museum’s historic and contemporary collections of Native American and American art and culture. We are inviting people to think deeply about the complexities of identity and placemaking and how we can create a sense of belonging and respect together. The timing, as the nation wrestles with its history and tries to imagine its future, could not be more opportune.
Biography of Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO.
As a curator, scholar, and museum executive, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). During her time as Chief Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, she led an internationally recognized acquisition initiative to build collections of works by Black, self-taught, and modern and contemporary artists. In 2003, Lynda was appointed as PEM’s first Chief Curator and in 2016 became Deputy Director. Overseeing the interpretation and installation of PEM’s new wing, she was integral to developing and advancing the museum’s innovative exhibition program, collection stewardship, fundraising, education, publishing, digital, and global leadership initiatives. Most recently, she was Deputy Director for Collections and Research and Chief Innovation Officer at the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada’s largest museum dedicated to art, culture, and the sciences. Lynda has returned to PEM to become the museum’s first woman director and to boldly lead the nation’s oldest continually operating and ever-evolving museum forward. Dive in and learn more at pem.org
The rest of this editorial will be published at a later date.