Connected \\ August 2, 2019

“You could feel people leaning in”

Extreme heat and a dramatic thunderstorm in the late afternoon did not deter about 150 members from attending a meet and greet with PEM’s new director Wednesday night.

A group of new and long-time members formed a line to shake Brian Kennedy’s hand during a cocktail reception, as several expressed anticipation to hear Kennedy’s remarks in a conversation with PEM board president, Rob Shapiro. One couple told Kennedy that they had met at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, the august institution which he led for nearly a decade.

brian kennedy and visitors

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing

Many are anticipating PEM’s next chapter under the direction of Kennedy, who took his fourth museum directorship of his career in July. They spoke of his reputation for being warm. They were anxious to hear his vision. “He drives this train. We’re just the caboose,” said Elizabeth Morris, whose mind might have been changed about the caboose part after Kennedy spoke many times later in the evening about being people-focused.

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing

Some wondered how his vision would mesh with downtown businesses, with the rest of the Salem’s art scene and the community in general. “I’m looking forward to more Salem outreach, more connection,” said Helen Sides, a Salem architect. “We love this museum. We have appreciated and supported all the expansions.”

While Kennedy was hesitant to outline an entire vision for the museum’s future, having only taken over on July 15, he did give the audience a clear picture of his philosophy about museums and what he sees as PEM’s strengths in the areas of storytelling, collections and arts education. He stressed using the museum’s unique history and collection in relevant ways today.

Kennedy remarked on the messages members have sent him via email, thanked them and assured them that he will personally write back. The audience seemed to enjoy his sometimes roundabout ways of storytelling, his Irish lilt and his flattery. For example, when talking about walking his dog around town, he said, “You’re an incredibly friendly bunch, and you’ve made us feel very welcome. I want to thank you all for the spirit you have here in Salem.”

Brian and Mary’s dog Lexy

Brian and Mary’s dog Lexy. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

From his first days at the museum, Kennedy has encouraged the staff and the board to think like the museum’s founders, who began travelling the world in 1799 and brought back to Salem PEM’s first collection objects. “The founders of this museum saw an opportunity which involved being very outward looking,” said Kennedy. “It’s founded on the notion of sea captains wanting to take a huge risk to go very far to places of entirely different cultures, different languages, different customs, different food, different songs, different dances and experience that culture. And of course they brought home their log books of how they mapped their way there and they brought objects, but more importantly, they brought back experiences and stories.”

We must be “progressive,” like our founders, Kennedy said, willing to overcome difficulties. “A founder is someone who finds something relevant to do,” he said. “I hope that’s what I’ve found here at PEM, an opportunity to do something together. It requires us all to be outward looking and not be thinking about ourselves.

He spoke of museums as “store houses of knowledge,” and places that should exemplify “human values.” He told the audience what he shared with the staff in East India Marine Hall on his first day -- to remember that we’re human beings and that we have an obligation to be present to each other and to be humane. “A museum can gather up all the aspects of what that means,” he said. “You can put it through the lens of human rights, civil rights...but what a museum represents, I hope for a community, is a celebration of human creativity over time by making it relevant to today.”

Shapiro reminded the audience that this fits with PEM’s mission to offer transformation through encountering art, culture and creativity. “The good thing is the mission and the candidate, as you once were, are a perfect fit,” said Shapiro.

After complimenting the staff on their passion for their work, Kennedy said that the staff is working hard to open the new wing in September, adding this is not the time for him to call long planning meetings. Instead, he respects the collaborative work in progress to open up the new collection galleries and the programming planning that comes along with the expansion celebration. Of the new wing, he said, “for this size of city to have this entity is extraordinary. People are already and will continue to come from all over the world.”

Brian Kennedy speaks to the staff on his first day

Brian Kennedy speaks to the staff on his first day. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

Kennedy spoke about PEM moving toward being an international leader in multi-sensory learning and stressed the importance of training children from a young age to take on a whole new visual language. “Think of Instagram, Snapchat, emojis,” he said. “We’re in a Visual Age of communication.” As we enter the Relationship Age, trust and our common humanity will be more important than ever, he said.

Brian Kennedy at pem

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing

Kennedy mentioned his desire to let the world know Salem was the home of Parker Brothers. “I played Monopoly in lots of different countries and didn’t know that Monopoly was made here,” he said. He has toured the museum’s board game collection and sees this as a perfect example of how the museum can tie its collections to timely topics. “We are the best place in the world to explore gamification in a museum, because we’ve already done it. I think it’s important that we take the things that really work that are part of the history here and apply them with new relevance. I’m really looking forward to that.”

He spoke of global population growth, telling the audience that the majority of people in 2025 will come from India, China, Nigeria, Pakistan -- places represented in PEM’s collection. “We need to think big,” he said. “But give me some time. I’ve only been here on the job two weeks.”

Some at the event expressed concern about the museum’s library collection moving offsite to the state-of-the-art 120,000-square-foot Collection Center in Rowley. Kennedy stressed the importance of thinking long term about the viability of the materials. “There are over a million objects, not including 400,000 books and a linear mile of manuscripts. I’ve seen that,” Kennedy said. “That’s a lot to have in your house. Our responsibility is that in a 100 years time, it’s in good condition and that it’s being used.” He spoke of ongoing efforts to digitize and preserve the collection.

One of the most satisfying things we’ve done as a board is look out 50 to 100 years,” added Shapiro. “To secure the Collection Center for the objects and works on paper...that’s very rare, for a board to give their successors a solution rather than a problem.

“We don’t have to have everything in Salem,” added Kennedy. “But what can we look at here? What should we look at here. Let’s talk about it because I’m listening. The idea is to do the best thing together. The museum is a private entity. It benefits from being a charitable institution. But it’s for the people. The purpose of the institution is to be a force for good.  What is the best good we can do that protects the collection and what’s the best we can do to make it available?”

discussion in atrium

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing

One of the things that will make the museum more relevant, Kennedy said, is to engage children from the time they are babies. A story told by Shapiro illustrated this point. His mother was a volunteer guide in the historic houses, he said, which piqued his interest in the museum from an early age. By the time he was in college, he dove into the museum’s resources to read the letters and logs from Jacob Crowinshield’s voyages at sea.

“Rob’s story is powerful,” said Kennedy. “If we don’t have more of those, we’ll get a larger share of a dying audience.”

In the meantime, Kennedy wants to eliminate barriers to the museum and propel its international reputation while at the same time listening to the people who live here.

People enjoying the Block Party

People enjoying the Block Party on a beautiful summer evening in July. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

After the talk concluded, Salem resident Melissa Hankens noted, “what was particularly relevant to me is this idea of meeting on common ground. That’s important these days when things are so divisive. I was moved by his focus on multi generations,” she continued. “And the focus on children. That’s one of the things that I always loved about PEM Pals. This has been like our living room.”

Kids enjoying PEM Pals

Kids enjoying PEM Pals. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Emma Stevens

Kids playing at the Block Party. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

Following the event, Brian and Rob heard from several members who were in attendance. Salem resident and college English professor Mark Stevick remarked "After your first exchange, I thought, 'Geez, I may need to take a few notes: Think like a founder. Outward looking. Different songs, different dances. One of the great gifts of life is to think about something from another point of view. I mean, 'different dances'? Ship masters encounter different dances. That's not anyone's average run-of-the-mill response. And that's why you pried him loose from Toledo. I read these to my wife last night; we shook our heads at 'One of the great gifts of life.' You can't fake this."

Shapiro commented that the mood of the room seemed to lift when Kennedy spoke. “You could feel people leaning in. He has that effect on people,” Shapiro said.

Surrounded by a group of women, all active community members, Kennedy said, “I’m optimistic that we will drive a lot of change here.”

“I’m optimistic now, too,” said Sides.

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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