Late, on a recent dark and gloomy November afternoon, smiles and laughter filled the PEM Atrium as a group of Japanese travelers were officially greeted by Daisy Wang, PEM’s curator of Chinese and East Asian Art. Neither jet-lag nor language could get in the way of a visit that recalls a long and storied relationship with Salem’s Sister City: Ota, a part of greater Tokyo. The official PEM welcome was then followed by official greetings from the Ota delegation along with the honored tradition of gift exchanging and lots more smiling and nodding.
Just a few feet away was Morse Auditorium, named for the prominent Edward Sylvester Morse, former director of the Peabody Academy of Science, a precursor to what is now PEM. These visitors from Japan — and the rest of the world — owe much to the self-taught scientist whose 19th century travels to Japan are legendary. History tells us that his discovery of the Omori shell mound…immortalized by a statue in Ota’s Omori train station…was the beginning of Japanese archeology and the launching of Morse’s love affair with Japan. It was that love affair, along with boundless curiosity and foresight that brought one of the oldest and most complete collections of Japanese artifacts to Salem and PEM.
On any day, museum visitors who wander into the Japanese gallery are often astounded at what they see: striking contemporary ceramics located near ancient earthenware vessels demanding a closer look and attention to what may be considered threads of cultural inheritance. Intricately carved ivory netsuke and exquisitely painted 19th century lacquer boxes, the latter ready for picnicking under the cherry blossoms, bring life to Japanese history. More than one visitor has undoubtedly wondered what it would have been like to ride in the ornately decorated palanquin with its open door, inviting us to take a seat. (Western women of the 21st century usually spontaneously agree that they would not easily fit inside such a small and confining space…and an audible sigh escapes those male visitors who recognize just who might be pressed into service carrying this antique carriage with its human cargo on their shoulders.)
Today’s guests are eager to see Japan at PEM: anticipation turns to appreciation and more nods of affirmation as Daisy tours the gallery introducing highlights of the collection. Since every Japanese child learns about the famous Mr. Morse, it is no wonder that their visiting PEM brings with it a certain expectation and sense of wonder.
Thousands of miles from Tokyo, here we are looking at their cultural heritage, beautifully displayed and lovingly introduced by a curator with heart. She brings us to the Tokonoma, relates a story about the newly installed scroll, and earns even deeper respect from the audience. Then it is up the stairs to the Japanese Export Gallery with its amazing collection of extraordinary (and decidedly not every day) objects. Our guests are intrigued and eager to see what PEM has on exhibition and a palpable sense of gratitude ripples through the group. It feels that we have met and maybe even surpassed their expectations. This visit is further testimony that PEM’s relationship with Ota and Japan is strong and vital.
While all this is going on, I am wearing one of those unmistakable smiles like that of a devoted fan whose team has just scored the winning touchdown. (Not being an actual devotee, it could easily have been a goal, a basket, or a homerun.) More than the smile, it is sense of pride and well-being, a kind of euphoria when something you care about is just right. This is how I feel about PEM and the Ota Cultural Exchange. Having learned about the exchange from fellow PEM docents, I dreamed that one day I might follow in their footsteps and go to Japan with this group. Rumors of outrageous Japanese hospitality were rampant as were stories about the tea ceremony, eating (only) with chopsticks and sleeping on a futon.
When the dream became a reality in the summer of 2013, I experienced it first hand. And it was everything I had heard about and then some. I came home with a new friendship that continues to grow stronger each day and with appreciation of a culture that has much to offer me…and anyone with an open and curious mind. I am definitely connected.
Sandy Sheckman has been a PEM docent since 2006 when she retired from her position as Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore. Aside from her work with PEM, she spends her time as a qualified mediator for the North Shore Community Mediation Center and is a member of various Boards and committees, hoping to make the world a better place.