Connected \\ September 13, 2019

Our relationship to the sea

maritime art

PEM’s Queen Elizabeth has always turned heads. Carved from a piece of mahogany, the stately 22-foot model was commissioned by Cunard to furnish their palatial offices at Bowling Green in New York City. Since its arrival at the museum in 1970, people have been fascinated by the glamour it represents — which is why it was the first object moved into the new gallery that is devoted exclusively to showcasing the museum’s world-class Maritime Art Collection.


queen mary moving

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer


Some maritime works on view may seem, at first, less commanding. Take a seemingly simple fish hook carved by a Native Hawaiian. Beyond its utilitarian use, it’s imbued with divine power by its maker.


Native artist in Hawai’i, Makau (fish hook)

Native artist in Hawai’i, Makau (fish hook), first half 1800s. Tortoiseshell. Gift of Mr. Stephen W. Phillips and Mrs. Stephen H. Phillips, 1925. E19689. © Peabody Essex Museum.

As PEM’s Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History, Daniel Finamore wants people to leave the new gallery thinking more deeply about how the sea impacts us all. It has always been a source of danger, opportunity and inspiration, he says. Uncontrollable and too massive to comprehend, the sea provokes powerful emotions that inspire us to create. And what a muse it is. The works on view represent a staggering variety of depth, from carved scrimshaw to a sailing canoe to a ship captain’s desk and a figurehead by famed sculptor William Rush.


rush figurehead

Photography by Bob Packert. © Peabody Essex Museum.


If you grew up in some waterfront place like Salem or if you currently own a boat, you may look at a marine painting and understand how the rigging works. But Finamore’s job is to engage everyone — those coming from around the country and other parts of the world — with maritime-related artworks and objects.


Trying to collapse that barrier, to make maritime art and history relevant to people from wherever they’re starting out has always been my highest priority,” he says.

Muqim, active 1609–59, Pakistan, Planispheric astrolabe (detail), 1640–50. Brass. Gift of Richard Wheatland, 1921. M2560. © Peabody Essex Museum.


In the new space, visitors encounter a blend of stunning maritime paintings next to things made by lonely and hardworking sailors, offering a well-rounded understanding of the creative output inspired by the sea. A curious object called a calendar stick helps tell this story, putting us in the shoes of its maker. The stick started as a sealing club and turned into something far more significant. A Rhode Island man, stranded on a remote island after a shipwreck in 1804, put 161 notches into this stick to document his days. “No doubt staring out at the horizon all day, every day, waiting to see another sail appear,” adds Finamore.

Another significant object in the gallery is a logbook from the first voyage of the Friendship of Salem. The first mate’s 18th-century loopy script tells us about wind, currents, rare bird sightings, the sickness of the crew and the rum exchanged for coffee in Batavia.


United States Model of the 1797 ship Friendship

Thomas Russell. 1780–1817, United States and Mr. Odell. Active late 1700s–early 1800s, United States Model of the 1797 ship Friendship, about 1804. Wood, cordage, and bronze. Gift of William Story, about 1804. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.


A multimedia interactive station invites visitors to click on highlights of the nearly year-long voyage and see the adventures that took place between Salem and the East Indies in order to better understand the danger, excitement and sheer length of a global voyage at sea. Then, they may compare PEM’s model of the ship, constructed aboard the Friendship in 1804, with the full-scale replica in Salem Harbor.


friendship in Salem harbor

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


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.

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