Connected \\ October 25, 2018

An interconnected world

While most museums divide departments based on culture or geographic region, American museums with global connections are increasingly producing exhibitions that look at a cross-cultural exchange of creative expression. By juxtaposing art and culture across time periods and place, visitors are invited to explore the interconnected world in which art is made. These adjacencies reveal a multilayered flow of ideas, artistic inspiration and people, offering an expansive view into artistic and cultural achievement worldwide. The Peabody Essex Museum, then and now, is based on these global connections and has been at the forefront of stewarding objects from across our world.

The roots of our museum date to the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society, an organization of Salem captains and supercargoes who sailed beyond either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. Society members brought to Salem a diverse collection of objects from from around the globe.


The East India Marine Society’s descendent organization, the Peabody Academy of Science, continued to focus on collecting international art and culture — more than 840,000 works of art featuring maritime art and history; American art; Asian, Oceanic, and African art; Asian export art; two large libraries with over 400,000 books, manuscripts, and documents; and 22 historic buildings, plus Yin Yu Tang, the only complete Qing Dynasty house outside China. Today’s collection has grown to include 1.8 million works.

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Yin Yu Tang. Dennis Helmar Photography


PEM not only celebrates its historic collections of global art, but also is dedicated to presenting art and culture in new ways, by linking past and present through exhibitions and acquisitions. I'd like to tell you about a few objects you will likely see in the fresh installation of our collection in the new gallery space, which opens in mid-2019. The Present Tense Initiative celebrates the central role that creative expression plays in shaping our world today. In a recent trip to Cuba, PEM friends and supporters were able to visit the Havana studio of Cuban artist Yoan Capote where his sculpture Immanence was on view. Created in the form of a monumental sculptural head of Fidel Castro, Immanence negotiates the conventions of monumental sculpture and representations of power in ways that are important to gaining a multi-layered understanding of Cuba but are also particularly relevant to contemporary political discourse in the United States.

Yoan Capote, Immanence. © 2017 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer/PEM


At 10-feet tall, Immanence is composed of thousands of rusted door hinges the artist acquired through a laborious process of hand importation, trade and exchange with friends and acquaintances. While these objects may play minor roles in our lives, their function is critical to the everyday existence of the Cuban people. The hinges represent the Cuban people’s capacity for improvisation and resistance towards the social and political forces that have been in power for more than half a century. Immanence illuminates the achievement of creative economies, becoming less of a dictatorial portrait and more of a collective image of Cuban citizens. The sculpture was acquired by PEM in the summer of 2017.


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Yoan Capote, Immanence. © 2017 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer/PEM

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Sanrio Company, Ltd., Hello Kitty rotary telephone, 1980s, Plastic, metal, and electrical components, Museum purchase, 2018.4.1 © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.


These global connections continue into the refreshed installation of PEM’s Japanese export collection Japanomania: Japanese Art Goes Global. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted with a ubiquitous Hello Kitty rotary phone, acquired by the museum in the spring of 2018. Since the 1970s, the iconic cartoon image of the white cat with bow has permeated popular and consumer culture.

While Hello Kitty may be the most famous cat in the world, Japan has always loved its feline friends. Additional kitties in the gallery include a 17th century porcelain cat with a raised paw and the contemporary small scale feline sculpture by Yoshimoto Nara. The juxtaposition of historic and contemporary objects invites visitors to consider the importance of cats in Japanese culture across time periods.

PEM’s long tradition of acquiring global art is perhaps most recognized in our maritime collection. The recent acquisition of Double Equestrian Figurehead signals the museum’s legacy of global exploration and dedication to maritime art and culture.


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© 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver


The Double Equestrian Figurehead is the earliest figurehead in our collection and the only known surviving double equestrian figurehead. The twin-headed horse is attached to a single body, its two heads facing in opposite directions. The horse stands upright with its forelegs tucked into the chest. On each side of the horse’s body there are remnants of female riders wearing mid-8th century riding apparel, including a skirt, jacket, boots in stirrups and riding gloves. This technically and formally complex carving of a twin-headed horse with riders would have been dedicated to 1st rate British warships in the 18th century.


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Photo by Lydia Gordon


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Photo by Lydia Gordon


Some of the most inspiring works of art from across the museum’s collecting areas are inspired by nature. Artists have long used the landscape, animals and food as sources of inspiration. The recent acquisition of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin painting represents the artist’s obsession with the vegetable, painted in her trademark chromatic style of red and black. Dots of varying sizes and densities populate this small-scale work, rendering the pumpkin as a source of radiant energy. Kusama’s pumpkin appears endearing and grotesque, floating in the center of the composition. The artist looks towards the gourd as a symbolic self portrait, having grown up on her family’s seed nursery in prewar Japan.


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Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, 1929), Untitled, 2002. Oil on canvas, 5 3/4 x 7 1/8 x 3/4 inches (14.605 x 18.098 x 1.905 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of The Estate of Mark A. Fischer.


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