Connected \\ January 10, 2020

A Step Above

If the stately East India Marine Hall is considered the heart of the museum, then Walter Meibaum jokes that “his” staircase is the aorta. The longtime volunteer Guide recently made a generous gift to PEM to name this special spot the Diane M. and Walter C. Meibaum, III Staircase.


PEM Guide Walter Meibaum, III in the staircase that now bears his name

PEM Guide Walter Meibaum, III, in the staircase that now bears his name. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


I could have never imagined having a piece of this museum with my name on it,” says Meibaum. “I am still thrilled to this day. There was a meeting held recently in the Groups Hub, and I picked a seat where I could see my name through the glass doors.
The (now) Diane M. and Walter C. Meibaum, III Staircase circa 1943.

The (now) Diane M. and Walter C. Meibaum, III Staircase circa 1943. The Phillips Library Collection. © Peabody Essex Museum.


Meibaum made his first visit to the museum as a high schooler in 1962 (then the Peabody Museum of Salem) right after moving to Massachusetts. He officially became a member in 1991 and joined the Guide ranks in 2016. When asked if he preferred being called a “docent” or a “guide,” Meibaum says that he flipped a metal coin and it landed on the edge, so he chose a term for himself, “ambassador” – which has been catching on. Today the Hamilton resident leads tours, reads up on exhibition materials and shares highlights, even though on paper he says he did not start off as an “art person.” His first full-time job was a linguist in the Air Force. Once out, he went into mechanical engineering and business.


Meibaum leads a group of visitors in the museum

Walter Meibaum leads a group of visitors in the museum. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


While he deeply appreciates the chance to share PEM’s collection and provide moments of inspiration for visitors, Meibaum sees the community and closeness of staff as the most important part of his job. “I have gotten a lot in return from the museum: friends, education, experiences,” he says. “I want to give back in whatever way I can. It is about the people.”

Guests enjoying ‘Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0’ currently installed in East India Marine Hall. Photo by MEl Taing/PEM.


“There is a clear connection and relationship to the Peabody Essex Museum for Walter,” notes Major Gifts Officer Catie Kim, who helped facilitate the naming of the staircase. Walter was one of the first people Kim met when she began at PEM in 2016, when he guided her through our “Shelter to Showpiece” tour as part of her training. It was clear to Kim right away that there was something unique happening here. “It was the best onboarding I could have had. I immediately recognized his passion, how committed he was and his wonderful willingness to share. From the start Walter not only made me feel welcome, but a part of the community at the museum.”


East India Marine Hall circa 1909

East India Marine Hall circa 1909. The Phillips Library Collection. © Peabody Essex Museum.


Through this friendship with colleagues, Meibaum started to become more and more involved with PEM. One day while having lunch with Kim, he learned of the opportunity to name a space as a part of PEM's Connect Campaign.

Alongside Kim, Meibaum paged through the renderings, looking deeply at the full list of naming opportunities. There was no second choice for Meibaum, who is inspired most by the space that started it all, and chose to name the staircase in East India Marine Hall. He recalls standing and looking at a 18th-century blanket chest made for Esther Lyman, where the question is posed: “How will you be remembered?” Meibaum would like it to be in this spot with these people. PEM, he shares, was the last place he took his wife, Diane, before her passing in 2009. Her name graces the wall alongside his.


Meibaum with philanthropology officer Catie Kim

Walter Meibaum with Major Gifts Officer Catie Kim. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


It is incredibly special when a donor thanks you for allowing them the opportunity to support the museum,” says Kim. “Some people give time, others give talent and some give treasure. Walter gives all of himself. All of us at PEM are grateful for his generosity and his friendship.


“His story at PEM is ongoing,” adds Kim. Not only is Meibaum a Guide, a member of the Nathaniel Bowditch Society, and an East India Marine Associate, he is also on the Maritime Visiting Committee and never misses a PEM Reads meet-up. When asked what he plans on tackling at the museum next, Meibaum jokes, “I’ve thought about joining GenPEM.”

East India Marine Hall

East India Marine Hall. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


New Year, #newPEM! You don’t have to know about art to fall in love with our museum. You just have to be you. Experience all that PEM has to offer—as a member. Have the first access to all the special happenings this year has in store with a PEM membership!

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