Connected \\ August 20, 2021
Curator Dean Lahikainen recalls four decades at PEM
The way Curator Dean Lahikainen talks about furniture is an art form unto itself. Even if you don’t really care much about the subject, you find yourself leaning in to look closer as PEM’s Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Art notes the delicately carved spindles of a simple chair, or the gently curving legs on a mahogany desk, a skill nurtured as a teen and honed during his distinguished 43-year career at the Peabody Essex Museum.
“I could listen to Dean all day. His ability to bring the social, personal, big picture to objects like a desk or a chair is remarkable,” says Ellen Soares, PEM’s Guide Program Manager. “Helping us think about why we should care connects us to the time, place and worldview of the culture in which it was made and of the people who used these objects and perhaps encourages us to think about the objects in our lives just a bit differently.”
Presenting new acquisitions to Trustees.
This month, Lahikainen, sometimes referred to as the “Dean of Decorative Arts,” retires after leading PEM’s American Decorative Arts department and stewarding its singular collection for more than four decades. Looking back on 43 years of service at the same institution is a rare moment for anyone. But when it happens at a place that began in 1799 with so many twists and turns in its long history, the experience is practically rarified air.
Gardner Pingree Mansion. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Thousands of works have entered the collection during Lahikainen’s tenure. He says he’s grateful to have come to town when parts of “old Salem” were still intact — when “grande dames” still lived on Chestnut Street in large homes with family collections.
Many of the works acquired by Lahikainen for the permanent collection will go on view this winter when PEM’s new Native American and American Art Gallery opens. In acknowledgment of Lahikainen’s extraordinary career and contributions to this institution, several of these works will bear credit lines in his honor.
“Throughout many years, Dean has continued to be interesting, informational and inspirational,” says Elizabeth B. Heide, who is an East India Marine Society member and serves on the American Decorative Arts Visiting Committee. “The breadth and depth of his knowledge is astounding. To know Dean has been an enriching experience.”
James Symonds, Valuables cabinet owned by Joseph and Bathsheba Pope, 1679. Oak, maple, iron, and paint, 16 1/2 x 17 x 9 1/2 inches (41.91 x 43.18 x 24.13 cm). Museum purchase, made possible by anonymous donors, 2000, 138011. Photo by Dennis Helmar
Looking back, Lahikainen fondly remembered acquiring the Pope chest, arguably his most important acquisition. Owned by accusers in the witch trials, the chest retained its original finish. A couple had been using it in their hallway, he said, “to set their keys on.” Another acquisition were chairs made for Elias Hasket Derby. Lahikainen’s wife, Besty, an upholstery historian and conservator, discovered that they were once upholstered in blue silk, allowing the couple to collaborate.
Artist in Salem, Massachusetts, Painted side chair from the Derby Mansion, about 1795. Wood, paint, and reproduction upholstery, 38 1/4 x 21 1/2 x 19 inches (97.155 x 54.61 x 48.26 cm). Museum purchase made possible by an anonymous donor, 1997, 137800.
Lahikainen got his unofficial start to his career working every summer at his family’s furniture factory, established by his grandfather in Gardner, Mass., known as the chair capital of the world. Growing up, he was always fascinated by the antique pieces in his friend’s houses. He later was hired by the Lexington Historical Society as resident manager of the Buckman Tavern, where the militia gathered in the early morning hours of April 19, 1775, to await the oncoming British Redcoat troops. He worked alongside experts in porcelain and metalwares and catalogued the property’s entire collection during a two-year period, the old-fashioned way with pencil and paper. He remembers reading everything he could get his hands on about American decorative arts.
A constant advocate for PEM’s historic houses, Lahikainen believes that restored and properly interpreted houses can be extremely appealing to a wide audience. He’s proud of PEM’s distinguished history of landmark restorations and is happy to see them become venues for small concerts and events in recent years.
When Lahikainen started out as Assistant Curator of the Essex Institute’s historic houses, he and his wife lived in the Ropes Mansion on Essex Street, fulfilling a stipulation in the will of the Ropes sisters in 1907 that there be on-site staff. After 12 years and two children born while in that house, the family moved into the Peirce-Nichols 19-room mansion, which Lahikainen equated with living in the White House with common and private living quarters. He remembers one day when their then very young daughter Amanda followed him into one of the bedrooms and stated, “This is a delightful room. I don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
Daughter Amanda Lahikainen gives her preschool class a tour of the Ropes Mansion, her home at the time.