History in Peabody Essex Museum


Salem, Essex County in Massachusetts is an area with a rich history. By 1821, the area had the Essex Historical History whose role was to protect the community’s rich history. There was also the Essex County Natural History Society which concentrated on keeping America’s natural wonders. They later merged into the Essex Institute, a fusion that assembled many varying collections. Later, this organization improved its purpose in gathering and display of art, and architecture. It moved its collections in history and archeology to the Peabody Academy of Science, the child to the East India Marine society. The Peabody Essex Museum was founded in 1799 by the East India Marine Society. This was a group of Salem sailors who had traveled around the world. Its charter allowed the creation of a store for natural and artificial items collected along with the voyages by the members. The society constructed its building, the East India Marine Hall and by 1825, they had begun to display their items collected from as far as India, Africa, and America (Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) para. 1-3).

Background to the East India Marine Society

Having realized that ships voyaging towards far Eastern Europe lacked American naval forces to protect them, a group of Salem Ship Masters resorted to form a society to serve this purpose. They named it Salem India with one of their original intentions being to protect families of members from the society’s revenue in case the members died. They also wanted to collect important information for navigation. It restricted its membership to only those mariners who had either been leaders or Crew commanders of their vessels in the pacific and Indian Ocean waters, as opposed to various marine societies at the time who admitted any crew. They also set up a bylaw to establish a museum of natural and artificial items picked from regions further than Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. This required all members to personally obtain objects however risky the journeys were. This meant that the items stored in the museum were a reflection of worlds reached in that recent past as well as a variance in experience (Morrison). Stimulated by the acquired independence by America, people were invited to learn more about the outside world on culture and in turn, gain individual perceptions on how other people lived (Finamore 1-12). Currently, the Museum has programs for students through its wealthy historical collections. By exhibiting these collections to students, Andrews and Winchell (Para. 12) assert that the museum gives students out-of-class experience considering that most of our time is spent outside. Besides, visiting the museum breaks the monotony of classwork thus developing our passion for this course. Therefore, we have access to this facility because of the already developed program to help students in their learning. As history students, accessing this museum gives us a chance to interact with objects and their makers from different backgrounds. It helps us to discover the kind of world they lived in and compare it with our own by making important relationships.

Objects available at the museum

Some of the collections at the museum depict voyages made by American sailors (Finamore 3). They were collected from regions they had reached. They include Chinese art and Chinese Export, American Art, Indian art as well as objects collected from Europe.

Chinese Art involves objects collected from the Chinese regions by the voyagers. They depict the culture of the people from china. Some of them are paintings on the Chinese socio-economic activities like fishing and tea framing. The PEM (para. 3) asserts that the collection series, The Fish, Silk, Tea, and Bamboo-Cultivating the Image of China exposes the crucial information on what voyagers thought of the Chinese. Although tea, bamboo, and fishing were meant for artistic purposes, makers earned revenue from exchanging with other items. In turn, it explains how the Middle Kingdom in the 18th century in Europe grew from China-Europe trade nourishments.

The Grand Turk Punch Bowl found in this museum is an item collected by the crew of the first New England Ship to do business in China. This ship was called the Grand Turk. It was a porcelain gift by Pinqua, a trader from China. Sailors exhibited it as proof that the Chinese had been receptive to them. Finamore (1-3) argues that trade search by the Americans would become the base on which they exposed themselves as sophisticated people who knew the world better and used it as a tool to overcome enemies on their voyages. This could be enhanced by the display of objects like this. The survival of the American economy after the Revolution and financial crisis is thought to be the result of trade links with the Indian and Pacific Ocean inhabitants.

East India Marine Hall was built by the East India Marine Society to accommodate the bloating size of collections. Initially, part of it was leased to an Asiatic Bank to support the operations of the Society. Many of the collections here were representations of sea vessels. Later, Benjamin Hodges contributed to the museum, a collection of a Chinese trader’s sculpture called Yamqua as curved by a local sculptor; Samuel McIntyre. This was included among other items about Indian merchants (Morrison 26-27). Some of the items other items found in this hall are the ball of hair taken to form a cow’s intestines in Madagascar, Shells of tortoises for scratching backs obtained from Fegee Islands, and several feet of human hair folded in a braid (Finamore 6).

These collections help to explain the purpose of voyages in the 18th century. The fact that mariners came back with trade objects, as well as cultural objects, shows that these sailors were not just business people, they wanted to survey and learn more about the distant world. They showed kinds of relationships between different cultures of the world. Finamore adds that the Grand Turk Punch Bowl had a painting of a ship that resembled some early British design (3). This shows that cultures of the world have always learned from each other and this only happens through interactions. Friendly relationships could perpetuate not just trade but cultural exchanges as well.

The Peabody Essex Museum and the Global Trade in the 18th century

Sophisticated items collected at this museum have themes on early sailing motives. There was initially no organization based on the kind of messages intended for the public but Finamore further asserts that the Salem voyagers wanted to show the relationship between their own internal culture and that of the far people(10). They were meant to expose the intelligence of the Americans in commercial achievements and how they managed to beat rival companies from other places.

This shows that the trade of the 18th century was depended on the strength and courage of the merchants. Traveling long distances and keeping a good relationship with partners were vital. Morrison argues that because the success of the American economy depended on this trade, merchants had to relate well with those they traded with apart from weakening rivals who posed a risk to the trade (30). Salem mariners had been intelligent enough to devise ways of overcoming this challenge. As a show of evidence, they often brought back items for the voluntary display of their success in settling into the lifestyle of the Asian tradesmen.

As a result, this museum continues to enlighten visitors on the goings-on in trade in the past. As students, we learn much about the activities of merchants, why they had to travel far, and understand that survival of trade required extensive market search. Evidence from these artwork collections is enough to give us out-of-class learning to help relate today’s trade with the past. In turn, we understand that although voyages might have collapsed, probably due to improvement in transport technology, they pioneered in making us know about the outside world. I think the exposure this museum might have caused to the community could explain why the Salem Sailing collapsed: Competition arose from those who learned from the Salem and in turn rushed for the markets identified by the Salem. After all, it showed that there was little to fear about.


In conclusion, the Peabody Essex Museum is relevant to students because it teaches us the past without necessarily having to read the books of history. We relate the past activities to today and realize that they are just improvements, not diversions from previous trade patterns: Rivalry, insecurity (from sea/air pirates) as well as cultural exchanges remain to be features of global trade today.

Works Cited

Andrews, Gavin and Jane Winchell. “Examine, Touch, Play, Interact: Object-based Inquiry at the Peabody Essex Museum.” Perspectives. 2009. Web.

Finamore, Daniel. “Displaying the sea and Defining America.” Journal of Maritime Research, 5(2000):1-12. Web.

Morrison, Dane A. “American Expatriates in Canton: National Identity and Maritime Experience Abroad, 1784-1850.” Conference on Race, Ethnicity and Power in Maritime America. Mystic Seaport, Philadelphia. 2000. Web.

Peabody Essex Museum. “A museum of Art and Culture.”. 2009. Web.

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