Discovering the PEM cosmos

Discovering the world of PEM during the past six months has involved layers upon layers of new experiences, dimensions and knowledge. The sheer aggregate of human talent and enlightenment housed within this museum-treasure continues to astound me. All those minds, imaginations and skills lead it ever forward for the next era and generation. PEM’s magic is felt the minute you enter the front doors and ascend to the inimitable, inspirational atrium.


Sheer magic. Get ready to soar, over the planet’s infinite seas.

I grew up on the South Shore and coming to work at PEM and living in Salem has been my first immersion in North Shore history and coastal scenery. Before arriving, the web informed me that Salem has the largest concentration of historic houses in the country. These range from sea captains’ proud mansions to sailors’ and merchants’ clapboard houses.

I love art and have worked in amazing art museums, but only PEM and Salem gave me tangible (and tantalizing) exposure to ships, seamen, maritime life, and wasn’t that what early New England is all about? While my eyes drank in Salem’s once-famous harbor and wharves, its emerald-green Common surrounded by stately brick mansions, and its historic center’s web of quaint streets parading wood-framed houses, many with plaques stating their age and original owner, I began accumulating books to help my understanding of these new surroundings, which at first seemed obscured by the Halloween season’s festivities, intensified by Salem’s witch-trial history.

Whatever I’ve read these past six months has made me live and breathe Salem of another time—and wonder if the city has a present-time at all. Of course Nathaniel Hawthorne stands as the number one literary voice of Salem and gave the town a rich fabric for me as I perambulated the neighborhoods or stood before his portrait in PEM’s Putnam Gallery. My quest to discover the identity of his early feminist protagonist in Blithedale Romance (which read like a contemporary tale of a 1968 utopian commune), led me to Margaret Fuller and also the Peabody sisters, one of whom married Hawthorne.

121,459 Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

In his marvelous storytelling Hawthorne studied and shared his ancestors’ and America’s Puritan past. PEM’s portrait of Hawthorne by Charles Osgood (1809–1890).

Encountering the array of frozen-in-time figureheads jutting from PEM’s East India Marine Hall’s walls captured my imagination, especially when I read about a ship’s launch in Esther Forbes’s Running of the Tides, a soap-opera saga that nevertheless offers a few glimpses of early maritime Salem—its perils and social strata—during its wealthy heyday. Did Forbes look through PEM’s archives and artifacts to gather her impressions? Her description of a ship’s launch resembles a painting:

 One day an ox cart lurched down bustling Derby Street. On it was enthroned a goddess—the figurehead of the new ship…. The red ox moved with the slow majesty of its kind. Merchants stepped out of counting-houses to see her; clerks stared with invoices in their hands. Wharfingers and seamen, porters, riggers, sailmakers—with their thimbles strapped to their  palms; women and fancy girls, urchins yelled and ran after her. She was beautiful to see—the bold wooden woman, blocked and chained to the cart. She was poised to fly forever forward, without one backward glance. Her white and gilt draperies blew behind her as though she already fought the storms…. Her nostrils were disdainful; her bitter lips parted. The wild, beautiful staring eyes were fixed on something that never was and never would be…. It was the day the figurehead arrived at Becket’s Yard that the ship received a soul.

My period of fascination with PEM’s figureheads led to learning how they were made, down to this very day, on web sites such as carver Martin Jeffery’s.


This braveheart is my favorite, still smiling after all those sea-battering voyages, or maybe that is why she has a subtle Mona Lisa smile.

Salem Friendship January 2011

The sailboat Friendship, and what I like to imagine as the prototype for the “Inman counting house” in Forbes’s book. © 2011 Massmatt

PEM’s bookstore has a maritime section where I discovered Jean Lee Latham’s Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, just the kind of optimistic, colorful biography I gobbled up in fourth grade. How did I miss this one? Though hardly an in-depth work, the book does convey the flavor of Salem and how society worked during Bowditch’s era. He was an indentured bookkeeper for nine years before setting sail as a clerk, and eventually becoming a sea captain himself owing to his nautical genius. He wrote The New American Practical Navigator, nicknamed the Sailor’s Bible. On one page, my eyes bulged to read that he lived in the house I now occupy and that his room was on the east side of the building, the side of my apartment.

Boardman house

Captain Boardman’s house (late 1780s), but no captain’s walk atop, as in Latham’s book.

Inevitably, I came ‘round to Herman Melville. All my reading life, I’ve avoided Moby Dick, because whenever I opened it my eyes glazed at the chattering, oddly spoken English I saw there. I wept over Billy Budd and liked Bartleby, the Scrivener, but Moby Dick, about a whale and seamen with harpoons intent on killing the whale, did not attract me. Then living in Salem, reading a lot of Hawthorne, mesmerized by Hawthorne and Melville’s friendship, I finally bought Melville’s The Happy Failure at the Coop, choosing it for its small trial size. I laughed as I haven’t laughed in a long time over a book—“Cock-a-Doodle-Doo! Or the Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano,” was the name of the story that set me off.



Needless to say, I’m now absorbed, in the most thrilling way, in Moby Dick (dedicated to Hawthorne), not only because of its manic, ingenious gushings that have no parallel anywhere else in English, but also because I live in Salem, work at PEM and now know some of the territory. Look at those eyes, that gaze, then read Moby Dick and experience what this monumental writer saw and managed to ink on paper. How he bowed to Hawthorne, and yet…his originality in language and breadth may surpass the very writer he worshiped.

What amazing timing that PEM is opening Turner & the Sea, May 31. I cannot wait. I’m already looking at all the images and imagining the treacherous, deadly storms, the drownings, the ships and supreme above all, the sea, the sea, the sea, merging into the sky. I can’t think of a more appropriate exhibition for PEM, for Salem, and for this newcomer to the museum. In the meantime, each day brings a new discovery and inspiration, such as a visit to the Phillips Library to see a small album of watercolors by H. Noyes Lewis, a seaman lost to recorded history except through his drawings to his bride, saved for all time by PEM.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (1831-1832). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

British Mateon, sailing in storm

H. Noyes Lewis, lost to posterity, but gained and saved by PEM.

And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens. Elsewhere match that bloom of theirs, ye cannot, save in Salem.

—Melville, Moby Dick


  1. sylvia belkin says:

    Loved your exposition Gail. We share the same literary appetite and love for Salem!

  2. bryanne says:

    I am glad you are so thrilled to be at PEM and appreciating its multitude of offerings I think it is important to point out that the marine material at PEM represents less than 10% of the total holdings of the museum. Also it is important to remember in our hyperspatial age that when PEM was founded 200+ years ago it was in the spirit of sharing international cultural information and objects brought back to curious citizens by the then only available means of sharing – physical transport by intrepid maritime businessmen.

  3. gail spilsbury says:

    Great points to share with readers! Thanks, gs

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