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.

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.

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.

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 possesses 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; a research library with over 400,000 books, manuscripts, and documents; and 22 historic building, including 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.

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating and collecting museum in the United States. Far from a typical museum, it is more an amalgamation of entities, a collection of collections. Although these collections are not encyclopedic, they make for a multidimensional and multifaceted museum. While PEM as such goes back only to the 1992 merger of the Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute, its history is long and complex, marked by a series of changes and reinventions originating with the founding of the East India Marine Society in 1799.

Established as a cabinet for the display of curiosities assembled by seafarers who wanted to share their global experience and knowledge, the East India Marine Society was also a community welfare organization dedicated to supporting the families of mariners lost at sea. The society’s feasts, parties, banquets, and parades were occasions of celebration in what was then, in the early nineteenth century, one of the wealthiest and most successful trading cities in the country. As a vital center for Salem’s social and intellectual life, the society was a precursor of the notion of the museum as a town square or forum, an idea at the center of modern urban planning practices such as creative placemaking. Salem’s architecture, furniture, and fashions were the pride of the country. It was a city of brilliant people — notably Nathaniel Bowditch, autodidact and polymath; the Reverend William Bentley, intellectual and diarist; Samuel McIntire, architect and designer; Sarah Parker Remond, anti-slavery activist and medical doctor; Nathaniel Hawthorne, renowned writer; and Joseph Story, the youngest person ever to be nominated for the United States Supreme Court and a founding force of Harvard Law School.

Unlike most of its peers, PEM was not formed by royalty or big-city plutocrats or from a single private collection. At its origins was a group of twenty-two sea captains and traders who wished to help people understand the world. Awe and wonder have long been a feature of Salem, and its globe-traveling ships brought back marvels.

That thus their exploits on the ocean wave / From age to age might still be handed down, / And distant generations might behold.”

PEM’S roots engage deep relationships between art and science. Far from seeing these disciplines as distinct, PEM and its antecedents envisaged a holistic world where art and nature, the sciences and the humanities are intertwined. Founded in 1848, the Essex Institute became one of the greatest documentary repositories of the history of an American region—Essex County—and of those who lived there. The Peabody Museum of Salem, established in 1867 as the Peabody Academy of Science, had a preoccupation with creating “transporting moments” for visitors through eclectic displays of natural history and handmade objects from all parts of the globe. A strong interest in new technologies prevailed and, of course, maritime navigation depended on such advances. Exploration and discovery were as much at the core of the museum’s history as were art and design, libraries and archives.

Since the 1992 merger of these institutions, PEM has undergone one of the most remarkable transformations in American museum history. Fueled by extraordinary ambition and private funding, the museum—now comprising three campuses and thirty-five buildings—has expanded its staff, budget, square footage under roof, attendance, and endowment. Our main campus in Salem centers on the historic East India Marine Hall of 1825, joined by the various additions built adjacent to it over the years, and includes thirty-three other buildings, twenty-four of which are historic houses. The second campus, located fifteen miles away in Rowley, Massachusetts, features the impressive Collection Center, which, in addition to providing object storage, houses the Phillips Library and offers facilities for conservation, photography, and digitization. A third, “metaphorical” campus embraces the museum’s digital and virtual realms.

Large and ambitious yet approachable and authentic to its history, PEM is an international museum with deep local and regional roots, a contemporary institution with DNA stretching back more than two centuries. PEM is a museum of art and culture, but, like all collecting museums, it is also a museum of history. As historical records of human creativity and imagination, its collections follow a broad definition of works of art because they contain objects and artifacts made for different purposes in many different parts of the world. PEM exists to tell the story of the entwined histories that enrich our human awareness and understanding of where we live and how we are connected to one another and with the world. PEM and its predecessor entities have long celebrated different customs from around the world and a variety of skills and technical expertise, bringing all this together to form a kind of “global narrative.”

The Peabody Essex Museum embraces and recognizes its history— one of democratizing innovation that is global in focus and based on international trade yet rooted in its founding place. We acknowledge that the museum was built on the ancestral lands of Indigenous people who have lived and moved through this place for hundreds of generations— people who continue to live and work in the region today.

PEM continues today as an educational resource of profound dimensions—a museum, library, and archive committed to art, science, nature, and human achievement. As we move forward, we will continue to be a place of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary activity immersed in multisensory learning. We are for the lifelong learner, the amateur, and the expert. We will build on our recent trajectory of growth, endeavoring to engage communities by embracing the spirit and pursuit of fun, experience, and learning. PEM will engage imaginative new technologies and looks forward with enthusiasm and excitement to the museum’s coming decades.

Text excerpted from the Peabody Essex Museum Guide (2020) which is available for purchase in the PEM Shop.

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