Connected \\ February 4, 2014
19th Century Experiences
Reflecting on a visit to East India Marine Hall, a museum patron noted:
To walk around this room was to circumnavigate the globe.
No, this was not a post on PEM’s Facebook page or an observation written in one of the gallery comment books, but rather the recollection of a visitor in 1860. Today, this type of visitor feedback is helpful to museum staff when designing and assessing exhibitions and programs, and their 19th-century counterparts are enormously valuable when studying the founding institution for PEM, the East India Marine Society (EIMS).
As part of my larger research project on the EIMS in antebellum America, I have amassed a treasure trove of similar personal accounts, newspaper columns and works of fiction pertaining to the Peabody Essex Museum in its early days. These documents, many which have been long forgotten, provide a window into the mind of these early museum goers.
Transferred to the Peabody Essex Museum by the Andover Newton Theological School, 2017. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.
Following the EIMS’ founding call “to form a Museum of natural and artificial curiosities,” members collected and displayed many expressions of cultural identity from around the world. For one visitor, the sculptures of Indian and Chinese merchants brought her to lands she would probably never visit, approaching “as near fairy-land as one ever can in this workaday world.”
For others, a trip to the EIMS museum conjured up different images. A former sailor wistfully gazed upon the objects on display and reflected on his long career at sea: