Rare Objects Become "Unbound" at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum

NOTE: This exhibition ended in November 2012.
The Peabody Essex Museum

Visitors to Salem, Massachusetts may go there lured by a curiosity to know more about the 1692 Witchcraft Trials but chances are good they leave with the knowledge that there is so much more to Salem than the tragic story of mass hysteria and people wrongly accused during a time when superstition and fear ruled the day.  For example, they may leave knowing that Salem is home to the Peabody Essex Museum (or the PEM as it's more locally known) whose origins date to the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society by a group of Salem-based captains and supercargoes (officers on merchant ships in charge of the commercial concerns of the voyage) making it the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States. Home to one of the major collections of Asian art in the United States, the PEM's holdings total about 1.3 million pieces including paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, textiles, architecture and decorative objects as well as twenty-two historic properties including Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old house that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States.

The PEM is constantly putting on new exhibitions to the delight of both residents and tourists including myself as on a recent trip to Salem, I was fortunate enough to view their latest exhibition "Unbound, Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM". The Phillips Library is the research and documentation division of the Peabody Essex Museum and is one of New England’s largest and oldest libraries with an international reputation as "a major resource for maritime history and art, New England life and culture, American decorative arts, Asian art and culture, Native American history and art, the art and culture of Oceania, natural history and genealogy."

Unbound Gallery
Unbound Exhibition

Somehow the curator was able to sort through the hundreds of thousands of rare books, manuscripts, sketchbooks, maps and ephemera (paper items such as posters, broadsides, and tickets that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles) and decide on 35 objects to display to visitors in Unbound. How he did it I don't know but I'm glad he did as the items on display are truly fascinating!

The exhibition runs from November 12th through next November which gives you a year to make your way to Salem and the Peabody Essex Museum to see these one-of-a-kind rare objects that are "Equal parts aesthetically and intellectually engaging," according to Sidney Berger, The Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library and exhibition curator. "From intricate botanical engravings and French lace samples, to a 16th-century Venetian astronomy text, these are the objects that fall into the margins of history. We are bringing them out for a rare moment in the sun." And they are amazing!

The exhibition is organized into three sections: Powerful Stories, Delight the Eye, and Rarely Seen but to me every single item I looked at fell into all three of those categories. Just to entice you to go see the exhibition yourself, I'll share some of my favorite pieces with you here.

1861-1865 Scrapbook of Civil War Envelopes
Theater of the World, 1588
The Scarlet Letter, 1850
Massachusetts Five Shilling Note, December 10th, 1690
A view of the "Unbound, Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM" Gallery

As amazing as it was to me that I was looking at an authentic document from the 1692 Witchcraft Trials, a leaf from the 1450 Gutenberg Bible (Isaiah XVII-XIX), Japanese pop-up teahouses that were created in the early 19th century, and the oldest piece of paper money in the United States (December 10th, 1690) amongst many other wonderful pieces of history, the objects on display that really caught my eye and interest were two very small bibles from the American Civil War that told a very interesting story:

As interesting as I found this collection of rare objects that are normally hidden away from public view at the Phillips Library to be, I sincerely hope that when this particular exhibition ends that the PEM will consider another showing of additional objects as I'm sure that these 35 pieces are only the tip of the iceberg of history the library contains. Truthfully though, with "400,000 printed volumes, over a mile in linear feet of manuscripts, and an extensive collection of ephemera, broadsides, pamphlets, and a substantial run of periodicals" located in the John Tucker Daland House and Plummer Hall (the two architecturally noted structures that house the Phillips Library) I don't think that this is even the tip of the iceberg but more like a very, very tiny piece!

Should you wish to go see this magnificent exhibition yourself (and you should, you should!), the PEM is open Tuesday though Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm; closed Mondays (except holidays) and Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is $15 for Adults; $13 for Seniors; and $11 for students. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang is $5. Members, Youth 16 and under, and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang.

For more information about the PEM please call 866-745-1876 or visit their website.


  1. The Peabody might consider doing what the Smithsonian has done with huge portions of their materials and that is put them on line for virtual viewing by those not fortunate enough to get to the museum itself


  2. Wow. Having worked in the printing industry for most of my working life, I would love perusing this gallery!

  3. You're in luck then, Barb, as it will still be there when you come back up to Massachusetts next year!

  4. I love that museum! You could easily spend several
    Days there. Lucky girl!

  5. What an interesting place! Thanks for all your sharing...


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