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.