One of the true lightning rods for Salem townies is the Peabody Essex Museum — it has been for at least the last 20 years.
Mention the PEM and its leadership, and you're sure to hear a litany of issues and complaints about both the way they do business and the way they have treated the city.
It wasn't always that way.
Prior to their first expansion in the early 1970s, the Peabody Museum was a small organization dedicated to maritime history with a focus on Salem. As a young boy, I would wander the halls of the East India Marine Society. There was much to draw a curious young mind, and I would spend hours there studying the natural history displays, the replica of the Queen Mary, and the huge wooden carving of Kuka'ilimoku (Ku), the Hawaiian god of war.
The steel workers, cement trucks, and large slabs of granite of the first expansion are still a vivid memory of my younger days. The moment when Jackie Kennedy Onassis pulled up in a limo in front of the now defunct Liberty Street entrance is also fresh in my mind.
After the expansion, the museum began to change. It was not sudden, but over the years, the change has been dramatic. There is less focus on Salem and natural history and more emphasis on art.
Many, but not all in Salem are unhappy with what the museum has become and also with the changes the merger with the old Essex Institute brought.
I have no quarrel with the choice to become a different sort of museum than the one I experienced so many years ago. I prefer what is was, but I still respect what it has become. It is my opinion, however, that the PEM has, for some reason, chosen to largely disassociate itself from the city it calls home. Many will agree with that opinion.
The large and costly expansion they are planning is an opportunity for the PEM to change that perception.
There are many smart and talented people in Salem who would welcome a chance to participate in the planning for the expansion. Many would like to see a part of the new wings dedicated to things we in Salem hold dear in our memories.
A large part of this expansion will have to involve improvements to the pedestrian mall and other surrounding areas. It is imperative that input from local merchants and citizens be included in the planning stages. Mall improvements should not be designed strictly to complement the museum expansion. Consideration needs to be given to the downtown as a whole. After all, there are other entities trying to make a living out there. There is no reason why they cannot cooperate with each other.
Improvements to the Museum Place parking garage and the Church Street (Almy's) parking lot would benefit both the PEM and the city. The garage itself is arguably the dirtiest and most run down structure in the entire downtown.
No matter your opinion of the PEM and what it has become, this expansion is a chance that should not be missed. By working together, the PEM can achieve its lofty expansion goals, the city can implement much needed improvements in infrastructure, and maybe, just maybe, the people and businesses of Salem can reconnect with the true anchor of our downtown.
What do you think about the Peabody Essex Museum's relationship with the City? Let us know in the comments.