Connected \\ August 8, 2019

An odyssey into PEM’s new garden

Salem and the world will soon be able to explore a 5,000 square-foot garden at the opening of PEM’s new wing in late September. The landscape design is inspired by the museum’s maritime history and contemporary focus, transporting visitors through a three room journey from North America to Asia. This narrative is thoughtfully expressed through multi-layered mediums including plants, water features, and granite masonry.


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A bird’s eye view of the new garden. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


In Honolulu, I curated a Hawaiian medicinal garden and conceptually re-designed a medical school campus as a Hawaiian sense of place. My work aimed to enhance inclusivity at the University of Hawai‘i by nurturing environments that reinforce identity for the underrepresented. PEM’s new garden is an exciting opportunity to advance similar work by broadening people’s perspectives, attitudes and knowledge of themselves and the wider world.

The botanical “voyage” was created by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, a New York City based firm, who designs at the intersection of ecological and cultural systems. The odyssey begins following a curious line on the ground behind frosted glass doors within the new atrium. From this portal, guests “set sail” through an illuminated entry, landing in an elegant granite courtyard.

In the first room, New Englanders may recognize common plants of North America such as slender serviceberry trees and honey-scented fothergilla. In the periphery, white asters bloom above delicately arching sedges and ears are seduced by a cascading water fountain etched like a doorway. For those visiting in spring, anticipate the canopy to erupt in white blossoms and the understory to plume in cream-colored flowers.

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A 10 foot granite fountain engraved with water and wind contours found at South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope—a significant landmark to circumnavigate in order to become a member of the East India Marine Society, the founders of the Peabody Essex Museum. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


Drifting away from the redolent, dense European hornbeam hedges shroud the world left behind, opening into a verdant expanse of imagination. While “anchored” in the hybrid garden, cross-cultural exchanges between west and east are captured in poetic ways. Most eye-catching is a mosaic of neon-colored succulents sprawled within raised granite beds containing snaking waterways that empty into a deep basin. This water feature conceptually follows an ancient Chinese garden where two lovers would float messages to each other. Granite benches border the architectural centerpiece and encourage wanderers to appreciate the surrounding grandeur from numerous vantage points.

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A confluence fountain inspired by a floating cup pavilion found in China’s Forbidden City. Its meandering design references local tributaries and outflows emptying into the Boston Bay. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


When autumn arrives, expect to be dazzled by the scarlet red columns of sweet gum trees contrasted by the golden leaves of lofty gingkos nearby. Spring’s promise will herald in mats of lilac-colored woodland phlox and awaken fragrant purple irises from their dormant bulbs. But it is in the summer that this room transforms into a flowery kingdom of salmon-pink yarrows, rose colored alliums, lavender hyssops and scaling white hydrangeas that eventually fade to pinkish-red.    

Navigating onward through a row of junipers, granite tiles disintegrate into a fine sandstone floor within the Asiatic room. The culmination of prior sights seems to crescendo up to a lofty London plane tree flanked by crescent-shaped benches that invite the weary to rest, reflect and be present. During the holiday season, maple leaves will ignite into “crimson flames” as sweet boxes, mountain laurels and red-fruited Japanese skimmia remain evergreen into the winter.

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The Asiatic garden room is intended to be a calming place for respite and reflection. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


While in the meditative space, I mused at the thought of a fourth room leading into the Pacific. My minds eye conjured images of home (O‘ahu) sparkling in the deep blue—its flora, fauna and lands known to me by their ancestral names. Immersed in the Massachusett elements, I whispered pensively, “What are your ancestral names?”

In honoring PEM’s legacy, let us also honor the land on which she calls home—ancestral territory that many Native communities moved through and lived in over thousands of generations, including the Massachuset, Pawtucket, Pennacook, Nipmuc and Wampanoag peoples. May we also acknowledge that Indigenous people from many nations live and work in this region today. It is my hope that future Native American Fellows will be able to interpret the garden from such a lens, to sow seeds of indigenous existence, resilience, and continuity in the public consciousness. For these stories I believe, like plants, grow medicine for us all.

A new PEM is launching this September—a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

For more behind-the-scenes stories from PEM, sign up for What's On, our monthly e-newsletter, here.

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