Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Place To Take The Kids: The Peabody Essex Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) came to my attention recently with a presentation by James Forrest, its Creative Director, in my Museums and New Media class. A survey of recent design projects for the museum’s state-of-the-art website, which included its collections database as well as representation of highlights from its past, present, and future exhibitions peaked my interest in visiting the real museum; in fact, I am among the first to dispel the fear that so many have about the increasing role of museum websites and their potential to overshadow the actual museum.

My response to PEM’s website was just the opposite, for I was anxious to soon experience the museum, its collections, and, at least, one of its numerous historic houses in three dimensions. Furthermore, although not a feature of PEM’s particular website, virtual tours of historic houses and museums themselves pale in comparison to the kinesthetic pleasures of being there and maneuvering through rooms and up and down stairways, and the like. After visiting web pages devoted to particularly PEM’s Yin Yu Tang, a two hundred year old Chinese merchant’s house and a touted highlight, I especially anticipated the real experience of walking through its wooden two-story structure and walled courtyard believing that its virtual representation promised an even better real experience.

My demands for a museum visit have changed in recent years with the addition of children to my family. Having joined an important demographic for museums, I am acutely aware of its particular needs and how they might best be served. PEM has embraced a mission that claims to be both "people-centered" and "dedicated to providing ...experiences to diverse audiences, " so I set out to see how true that is. What I found was that it provides extensive resources, programming, and facilities for particularly visitors with children.

Although many museums have redefined themselves as audience-centered in recent years and have made efforts to become more "child friendly" with increased programming and the development of interactive offerings, others have merely adopted the rhetoric and been slow to transform their physical plant in order to do so. PEM, with significant financial backing, has been among those to realize a mission that seeks to insure "compelling and meaningful experiences to diverse audiences."

PEM includes all the bells and whistles of a child friendly institution. Salem, Massachusetts, its home, is a year round tourist destination with much to offer, and it is only fair to recognize that PEM has benefitted immensely from the city’s strong infrastructure which includes good parking, handicap ramps, and functional sidewalks. Getting to and from the museum’s door is more hassle free than many urban museums. Reaching Salem by car from Boston and its nearby environs via Interstate 95, 128 North, and, finally, 114 East, was virtually painless on the weekdays at noon when I visited, and the signs directing you to the museum once you entered Salem seemed to be every fifty yards. The New Liberty Street parking garage is a stone’s throw away from the museum, and if, on the rare occasion, the four tiers of parking are full there is a municipal lot on nearby St. Peter Street.

If you are coming by the Newbury/Rockport train line from Boston, you would arrive at the Salem Station at one end of the city’s Pedestrian Mall; the other end of which, after a five-minute walk, is the museum. The No. 450 or No. 455 bus from Boston’s Haymarket Square, gets you to Salem, and you can reach the museum after a short walk. For the more adventurous, the Salem Ferry, a 50 minute catamaran ride, from Boston’s Central Wharf will bring you to the Blaney Street Wharf in Salem between June 15 and October 31. A taxi ride or walk is necessary to reach the museum from the wharf. Of course, for visitors with small children and strollers, driving and parking nearby is the least strenuous means of getting to the museum.

From the top tier of the Liberty Street garage a nearby elevator brings you to the ground level tourist shopping mall. Exiting to the outside street there is a short walk around the corner to the new glass and steel atrium of the museum’s entrance. The entrance, to this museum that has seemingly spared no expense in its recent architectural transformation, state-of-the-art website, interactive tools, exhibition development, and world class collection, among other things, is decidedly understated. Where are the bright banners and signs invoking visitors to come and see its wonders? They simply aren’t there. I can remember purposely not visiting this museum in the past because its nondescript entrance turned me off. In order to get to the entrance doors one passes through a sea of pedestrians and street entertainers that seemingly celebrate Halloween year round here.

I observed volunteers and staff eager to serve visitors at PEM. Making my way to the museum’s doors for my first visit a volunteer spotted me and rushed and opened the door for the stroller containing my son and daughter; how’s that for service? Entering for my second visit large groups of high school students were exiting which is indicative of the educational outreach underscored in PEM’s printed brochures. The admissions desk in the "Atrium Way" is attended by conscientious volunteers who, on my second visit, gave my family and I free admission once I offered up my student ID card and added that I was in Tufts’ museum studies program, which peaked this particular volunteer’s interest. I also added that Jim Forrest, their aforementioned Creative Director, had recently spoken to one of my classes, and that seemed to clinch the deal. Children under sixteen are always free, but I nevertheless saved a considerable sum. In addition to the free admission, which is regularly a steep thirteen dollars for adults, eleven for seniors, and nine dollars for students, this volunteer also served up two free tickets for the self-guided tour of the Yin Yu Tang house, which I had set my sights on, an additional eight dollar value. I had visited the museum two weeks before and only received the student discount, so this was simply my lucky day.

In addition to the visitor’s map one is handed, there is an abundance of free printed resources for maximizing one’s experience, and these are available in French and Spanish. "Viewpoints" offers visitors enrichment through textual thematic links to the collection. It also includes stories about some of PEM’s highlights. Given the fact that you can’t "do" the museum justice with just one visit, such a resource is a great introduction. After two visits of roughly two hours each, there are still areas of the museum that I have not thoroughly explored. Another resource, "Family Guide," offers a collaborative experience whereby parents and children are directed to "share their impressions" with each other and locating details of particular works in the museum. It also includes an introduction to reading labels for young children. Such resources are invaluable for engaging children and making them lifetime museum visitors. Following these prescribed tours or using PEM’s numerous printed gallery resources promises to further enhance the museum experience.

There are coat rooms off to the right of the Atrium Way, but security is amenable to you carrying your backpack or bag at your side. After you pass beyond the admissions and membership desks, the space opens up to reveal the full breadth of this new steel and glass Atrium which forms the nucleus of the newly expanded museum. All areas of the museum are accessed from here, including the museum’s award-winning café, with its comfortable seating of patio tables and chairs on its ground floor. There is also a "Garden Restaurant," which offers larger and more expensive fare off of the Maritime Art galleries to the right. Food selections at the Atrium Café include a lunch for two of gourmet sandwiches and soft drinks for under twenty dollars. The museum shops are located adjacent to this. The museum’s bookstore is worth the visit alone for it has a large selection of books and multimedia resources related to current and past exhibitions, including numerous museum catalogues that have been accessible all over the museum.

The tour of the Yin Yu Tang house is self guided and limited to thirty minutes. One enters the site through glass doors off the ground floor of the Atrium. Yin Yu Tang and its courtyard, which can be seen from every level of the glass Atrium, was disassembled and shipped from China. Security is attentive to visitors making their way into the courtyard of the house reminding them to watch their step. The paving stones of the path are loose and slippery, and I saw one visitor trip on them. This visitor was assured by a vigilant security guard that these loose stones will soon be remedied. There is no accommodation in this area for wheelchairs; navigating a wheelchair through the narrow spaces of the house itself would seemingly be impossible.
In my previous visit two weeks before, I was handed an "audio wand" for the self guided tour. The wand is a relatively old technology which I found physically awkward to handle in comparison to smaller mp3 units I have used in other museums. The wand is hard to juggle while keeping hold of a child, or if you have to carry other things. It took one hand for me to hold it and another to punch in the two-digit codes for each of Yin Yu Tang’s audio stations, which are designated by discreet, numbered, stone blocks on the ground. The wand has since been replaced with a smaller mp3 player,"audioguides," which allowed me to hold it and enter codes with one hand this second time round.

Although the Yu Yin Tang is self-guided, there are knowledgeable security guards that offer up anecdotal information about the house freely to visitors. There is no labeling or signage in this site; all information is officially imparted through the "audioguides." This is what makes the experience so unique, for it truly immerses the visitor in a different place and time. The museum has nine other historic houses situated in Salem, but these are experienced through more traditional guide led tours. Visitors expressed their appreciation to staff, and punctuated this with a professed love for this exhibit and the museum as a whole; in fact, I frequently overheard unsolicited praise for the museum by fellow visitors. Adjacent to the house, after exiting, is a theater that provides a comprehensive video narrative of the house’s origin, its construction, and the process by which it came to rest in Salem.

Additionally, there is seating in another room where laptops provide access to the museum’s web pages on Yin Yu Tang. Pertinent print resources are available too for visitors to sit and peruse. There is an inviting mahjong set-up for those inclined, and a plasma screen display of an exhibit of contemporary photographs of rural China, the house’s original location. Clearly, the museum invites the visitor to make a day of their visit and enjoy its offerings at their leisure; it occurred to me how antithetical this all is to early museum planning and practice which sought to usher visitors in and out of the museum speedily and systematically.

In another corner of the museum my son sat on the floor entirely absorbed in a set of reproduction Anchorstone blocks, once popular in 19th century Europe, an offering of one of the dozen or so activity boxes in PEM’s Art and Nature Center. This area alone attests to its commitment to educating and entertaining young visitors. The Center’s current focus is origami, and there are expert examples of folded paper animals and reptiles housed in vitrines interspersed among tables set up with interactive activities for children of all ages. For traditionalists, there are taxidermic birds and fish behind glass too. Origami lotus flowers hooked up to an air bellows, which can be pumped by foot, is popular with kids; the flowers consequently spin.

The Center has several art studios where adults and children alike can currently do origami by following step-by-step streaming video demonstrations offered up on PEM’s website. This exemplifies how this particular museum has maximized visitor use of its website. This particular activity seemed to attract enthusiastic parents and their school age children while others with pre-schoolers in tow gravitated to a nearby area of comfortable seating and shelved activity boxes filled with games, puppets, and toys thematically related to art and nature.

Elevators are roomy and provide access to all areas of the main museum. Couches and cozy sitting can be found in numerous corners of the museum, and these always include a choice of exhibition catalogues. These could and did provide unofficial places for nursing mothers as well as places to pause, "chat & relax," as PEM’s own brochures define their function. Bathrooms can be found on all floors except the third, and their commodious spaces and changing tables are a welcome feature to parents with small children. Water fountains were always located nearby.

Numerous touch screen kiosks provide visitors added experience through choices of relevant audio and video. One example mounted on a wall of the current Samuel McIntyre exhibition included an audio narrative and digitally reproduced primary documents about "a classical education" in 18th century America. In an exhibition of Southeast Asian art, a large plasma touch screen provided text, video, and audio on a variety of subjects related to this region, including, but not limited to, religions, music, and dance.

The museum was not faultless, for I felt that the collection’s safety had taken precedence over that of visitors in one instance. In the Native American and Oceanic Art collections lighting levels were seemingly lower than other areas of the museum. I attribute this to numerous exhibits of textiles which are extremely susceptible to deterioration by light. I had difficulty seeing in this particular area. Science tells us that it takes twice the amount of light for a forty year old to see what a twenty year old sees, so I could only guess the difficulty 60 and 80 years old had maneuvering in this area. Adding to my concern were vitrines with sharp and jutting edges unseen in other areas of PEM that one had to maneuver around in order to see what there was to see.

PEM serves as model of how a museum can, as its mission states, "create experiences" which bring the "wider world" to its audience. Its attention to making the museum more than just a place to house art and culture is exemplified by its attention to actively educating through continuously developing new and meaningful experiences using the highest quality programming, publications, and ground breaking technology available in addition to making their collections more accessible to larger audiences of all ages. There is room for improvement though. The wheelchair inaccessibility of exhibits like Yin Yu Tang comes to mind. The museum might bring an approximation of this one-of-a-kind experience through a virtual tour on request. Finally, the museum might consider using timers to bring about greater momentary illumination to its dimly lit exhibition spaces while still limiting deteriorating exposure to light.


Peabody Essex Museum, "Mission Statement," (Accessed October 31, 2007).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i just wanted to add that the american museum of the moving image is a great place for kids, though probably older than yours - very interactive in many different ways.