If you were to wake up one morning and say to yourself “I think I’ll start a museum,” how would you go about forming a collection to display and what would be the very first object you would begin with?
Luckily for me, I don’t have this urge, at least not since I’ve been working at the Peabody Essex Museum. But if you do, you are far from alone. According to The Economist magazine, 451 new museums opened in China during 2012 alone! I’ve met many people who have told me about the private museums they have set up in their basements or studies, composed of shelves or glass cases filled with objects they have fallen in love with for one reason or another and which they want to share with others. Lots of kids do this (and some of them grow up to become museum curators)!
Back in 1799, Salem was abuzz with talk about all the amazing places that local mariners were sailing to and the strange and intriguing objects some of them were bringing home in order to give their families and friends an idea of the experiences they had in far off lands. So in September of that year, a group of sailors formed what they called a “museum of natural and artificial curiosities, particularly such as are found beyond the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn.”
Of all the wondrous things from around the globe, the very first gift cataloged into the museum’s collection was from Captain Jonathan Carnes who had made several very successful voyages to Sumatra in pursuit of pepper. There he had acquired a smoking pipe with one bowl but two stems, apparently designed for two people to share.
Today this pipe remains a curiosity because more than 200 years later we don’t know much more about who made it, why, or how it was used. Although we think Carnes acquired it in the vicinity of Banda Aceh, it isn’t a common design for smoking paraphernalia there and I’ve never seen another one like it. Neither had a recent visitor — an art historian who specializes in that part of the world who suggested it might be from around Burma. If that’s the case, then it leads me to wonder how it got to Sumatra and what the people there thought of it before they gave it away or traded it to Capt. Carnes.
The symbolism of the pipe with its two stems seems to refer to friendship and sharing, so I think it’s incredibly appropriate that it serve as the founding object of our museum. The bowl is quite blackened, so it must have been well used. In our quest to learn more about it, perhaps a chemical test would tell us precisely what they used to smoke in there . . .
Editor’s Note: What a great time to contemplate PEM’s first object as we have just shipped quite a few superlative and iconic objects from the PEM collection to New York City for this year’s Winter Antiques Show. Museum staff are gathering at this very moment at the Park Avenue Armory where Fresh Take, Making Connections at the Peabody Essex Museum is taking shape, with more than 50 paintings, sculptures, textiles and decorative objects from diverse cultures and time periods that will be grouped together, uniting and contrasting objects of creative expression in unexpected ways. The show starts Friday, January 24 and runs through February 2.