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      Connected | May 12, 2020

      Finding home

      Alyssa Langlais

      Written by

      Alyssa Langlais


      Like so many of us in the past few weeks, I have been grappling with the all-around uncertainty that this pandemic has precipitated. Family, friends, home, work and nature have been my go-to sources of grounding and balance.

      I recently moved, so my sense of home was already in upheaval as the world around me was changing so dramatically. As I have unpacked familiar things, possessions imbued with memories and meaning, my house is slowly becoming a home. My family and I explored the surrounding neighborhood, woods and wetlands. I am finding joy in watching spring bloom all around me and the animals and insects beginning their busy work. I carved out a space for a home office, from which I now collaborate with my colleagues and “see” them, nearly daily. I find it comforting to be amidst these familiar sights and sounds in this perilous time, all the while missing so many other daily experiences that I have come to know and hold dear.

      PEM’s art collection is another source of solace and familiarity to me. After more than 21 years of working with the collection, so many of the artworks have become like old friends. The sight of them is calming and reassuring, and their significance surprisingly relevant right now. PEM’s Korean art collection speaks to me through its reverence for the natural world and ability to convey meaning through familiar patterns and motifs. Perhaps because the effort that I have been engaged in - nesting and creating a home, I am particularly struck by the symbolism in this beehive, made by artists in Korea in the 1800s.

      Hollowed tree trunk, pigments and iron of a decorated beehive from the 1800s.

      This beehive has been ingeniously crafted from a hollowed-out log with a natural hole in the side, serving as an entrance and exit for its inhabitants. The walls have been adorned with carved and painted flora and fauna such as cranes, deer and pine trees. The patterns on the sides have been chosen with great purpose as they are symbolic of long life, an aspirational sentiment bestowed by the creator of the hive upon the bees that called this work of art home.

      Artists in Korean, decorated beehive, 1800s. Hollowed tree trunk, pigments and iron. Museum purchase, 1927. Peabody Essex Museum. E20114. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

      As this hive endured the natural elements over many years of use, the once bright pigments on the raised surfaces of the elaborate carvings were worn and darkened from exposure to the weather. The long, vertical crack in the log was stabilized with iron, likely by its owner. Set against the damp ground while in use, the bottom of the hive was rotted and worn away by the time it came to the museum in 1927. I suspect it was exhibited upside down in the early years of its tenure at PEM for this reason. In 2003, this damage was repaired by our talented objects conservator, Mimi Leveque.

      Beekeeping has been practiced in Korea for over 2,000 years. In the 1800s, honey was highly valued as a sweetener and for its medicinal properties (as it still is, across the world today). So, it is not surprising to me that such careful attention was given to this seemingly utilitarian object. As I look upon this beehive, I think of spring, renewal, hope, home and community. I also think of endurance and fortitude, both embodied in the journey of the object itself to the museum and in the daily work of the community that it sustained while in use. As I go about my work, I cannot help but feel connected to this artwork, its symbolism and even the people and culture that created it.

      As Registrar for the Collection, my team and I are moving forward with many types of activities: working with donors of artworks and artists, making preparations and plans for future loans of PEM artwork to other museums, and importantly, planning for access to artworks, and their unique stories, via documentation, digitization and implementation of improved technologies.

      A large gathering of people in bright yellow dresses, some with drums give an official greeting an art object in a crate being offloaded from a truck at the airport.
      A loan of artwork from PEM being received at Incheon airport, Seoul. Courtesy image.

      At home, I have just unpacked my danso, a Korean flute, given to me in 2013 when I accompanied a loan of musical instruments from PEM’s collection to the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, South Korea. I am buoyed by my fond memories of the heartwarming reception for these works. They are now considered national treasures and were visiting their homeland for the first time in over a century. I think of the colleagues that I worked with on the other side of the world and how they are weathering this storm. I hope that South Korea’s quick and decisive response to the global crisis will continue to serve them well in reducing the impact of this virus on their communities. I expect that they are finding their own sources of solace and joy in these difficult times.

      The PEM staff wishes everyone health, safety and calm during the COVID-19 shutdown. Museums provide light and inspiration during challenging times. We will be creative in maintaining PEM’s relationship with you in this time of crisis. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when the public health crisis has subsided.

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