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PEM debuts first large-scale traveling exhibition of ocean liner design and culture

Released February 14, 2017

Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style

On view May 20 through October 9, 2017

Save the date: Press Preview | Thursday, May 18 | 5:30-7:30 pm

SALEM, MA – The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style, the first exhibition to fully assess the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner. As showcases of opulence, technology and social sophistication, these floating cities captured the imagination of artists, engineers, and architects. This groundbreaking, international exhibition co-organized with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (V&A), brings together nearly 200 works from the mid-19th century through the late-20th century, including paintings, sculpture, models, furniture, lighting, wall panels, textiles, fashion, photographs, posters and film to explore the distinct design, elegant engineering and cultural dynamics of an era when ocean liners ruled the sea and the popular imagination.

The rich collections and curatorial perspectives of PEM and the V&A dovetail harmoniously for this exhibition. Founded in 1799 by sea captains and merchant traders, PEM has been actively collecting art and design related to ocean liners since at least 1870, building holdings of paintings, prints, posters and models that today number in the thousands. The V&A, one of the world’s leading institutions of art and design, began collecting ship models and technology patents to improve Britain’s commercial and manufacturing advantage in the 19th century, when it was known as the South Kensington Museum. In the 20th century, the V&A acquired ocean liner posters and ephemera, ceramics, textiles, metalwork and furniture, all with the aim of representing good design.

“The great age of ocean travel has long since passed, but ocean liners remain one of the most powerful and admired symbols of 20th century modernity,” said Dan Finamore, PEM’s Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History. “No form of transport was as romantic, remarkable or contested as the ocean liner and their design became a matter of national prestige as well as a microcosm of global dynamics and competition.”

Reimagining Ocean Travel
Within a few years of the first liners crossing the Atlantic, companies deployed strategic advertising campaigns to shift the public perception of ocean travel from dirty and dangerous to being regarded as a highly-desirable and glamorous leisure activity. This dramatic shift in the ocean liner’s image was depicted in large-scale, full-color posters that reflected advances in color lithography printing. Ship models, brochures and films created imagery to attract the savvy traveler, while the architecture of shipping offices and port buildings offered a taste of the high style that could be found on board.

Competitiveness in private industry grew into competitions for national prestige; the French liner Normandie was promoted as the most elegant in the world, with different parts of the ship crafted to reflect distinct French provinces. Each new liner sought to embody modernity, and to be larger, faster and more brilliantly envisioned than its predecessor.

Drawing on new research Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style brings together elements of interior ship design never before exhibited, with an international perspective on the progressive development of modern ship interiors. Over the course of a century, top-tier artisans were commissioned to create the finest designs and artworks for these floating palaces and did so while reflecting the taste, sensibility and politics of their time. Voyagers seeking drama and style could be transported when they entered high-ceilinged rooms stretching over two decks lit by domed skylights. “Choosing which vessel to travel on was a way for passengers to select a fantasy experience,” says Finamore. “They could live in an Art Deco Parisian apartment or a Romanesque castle. The choice was theirs.”

Floating Culture
In the late 19th century, Jules Verne observed of his experience on the British vessel the Great Eastern that the ship’s small world carries, “all the instincts, follies, and passions of human nature.” The highly structured social experience on board offered passengers opportunities to live out idealized visions of cosmopolitan social order. There were zones for physical fitness, children’s activities, socializing and even religious worship. Dinner in first class was the principal social event of any day at sea. The social act of eating and drinking bound the ship’s elite players in evenings dedicated to haute cuisine, elegant formal attire, and dining rooms with central staircases that enabled dramatic entrances, and mezzanines offering sight lines to other ‘important’ diners. Theatre companies promoted the arrival and departure of their stage actors like Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich travelling between New York and London, and journalists and the public would crowd the docks to see their favorite stars.

Ocean liner travel also had a significant impact on the evolution of sports and casual wear design. Designers started offering a demi-saison to present resort or ‘cruise’ wear for those who were wintering in warmer climes or planning to engage in sporting activities during their transatlantic travel. For the fashion designer, the liner was a modern mode of transportation that opened up new vistas for overseas exposure and expansion. The world of haute couture became increasingly international and the golden age of liner travel brought direct access to a global clientele.

Among the largest moving objects ever built, ocean liners became a symbol of human progress and a platform for visionary creativity. Today, fantastical cruise ships and contemporary architecture carry on the legacy of the ocean liner.

Thursday, May 18 | 5:30 Pm Cocktail Reception| 6 Pm Remarks & Exhibition Tour

Please join us for a cocktail reception and exhibition preview of Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style. RSVP to Paige Besse at or 978-542-1646.

High-resolution publicity images are available upon request.

A lavishly illustrated, 288-page catalogue with curatorial essays will be available in the PEM Shop.

Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style is co-organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The exhibition is co-Curated by Daniel Finamore, The Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at the Peabody Essex Museum, and Ghislaine Wood, Guest Curator for the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. At the Peabody Essex Museum it is supported by generous gifts from the Fiduciary Trust Company and Eaton Vance Management as well as a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation and the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum also provided generous support.

92.5 The River
Art New England

‘Cunard Line USA’ poster featuring Berengaria (detail), about 1925. Color lithograph. Collection of Stephen S. Lash. Courtesy of Cunard. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky.
Goyard luggage, Duchess of Windsor, about 1950. Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Luke Abiol.
Kenneth Shoesmith, Cunard Line, Europe, America, 1929, color lithograph. Gift of the estate of Francis B. C. Bradlee, 1928, M11215. Peabody Essex Museum. Courtesy of Cunard. Photo by Bob Packert.
Bassett-Lowke LTD, Model of Queen Elizabeth, 1947–1948. White mahogany, gunmetal, brass. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Cunard Line Ltd., 1970, M14220. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.
Dress, Jenny of Paris, about 1926. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Mrs. Sanford S. Clark, 1971, 132655. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Walter Silver.

Over the last 20 years, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has distinguished itself as one of the fastest-growing art museums in North America. Founded in 1799, it is also the country’s oldest continuously operating museum. At its heart is a mission to enrich and transform people's lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. PEM celebrates outstanding artistic and cultural creativity through exhibitions, programming and special events that emphasize cross-cultural connections, integrate past and present and underscore the vital importance of creative expression. The museum's collection is among the finest of its kind boasting superlative works from around the globe and across time -- including American art and architecture, Asian export art, photography, maritime art and history, Native American, Oceanic and African art. PEM's campus affords a varied and unique visitor experience with hands-on creativity zones, interactive opportunities and performance spaces. Twenty-four noted historic structures grace PEM’s campus, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old Chinese house that is the only such example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States, and the Phillips Library, which holds one of the nation’s most important museum-based collections of rare books and manuscripts. HOURS: Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-5 pm, and the third Thursday of every month until 9 pm. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. ADMISSION: Adults $20; seniors $18; students $12. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang: $6 (plus museum admission). Members, youth 16 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang. INFO: Call 866-745-1876 or visit

The V&A is the world’s leading museum of art and design with collections unrivalled in their scope and diversity. It was established to make works of art available to all and to inspire British designers and manufacturers. Today, the V&A’s collections, which span over 5000 years of human creativity in virtually every medium and from many parts of the world, continue to intrigue, inspire and inform.

PR Contacts:

Whitney Van Dyke - Director of Communications - 978-542-1828 -

Melissa Woods - Communications Specialist - 978.542.1609 -