“Worth All the Cabinets and Museums Put Together in the United States”

Sep 3, 2020

by Katharine Fitzgerald, Curatorial Fellow, The Trustees of Reservations 

What do a sea cucumber, a six-foot scale model of the U.S.S. Constitution, a taxidermy penguin, and a sign painted by a French artist have in common?

Besides all being important parts of the Salem East India Marine Society’s original collection, these objects actively participated in global maritime trade that enabled the city of Salem, MA, to prosper in the early 19th century. In his new book, Collecting the Globe: The Salem East India Marine Society Museum, George H. Schwartz explores this institution’s first century through its most lasting contribution: its collection of objects, specimens, and articles of life at sea. These materials and the stories they tell were acquired by its members and displayed in the Society’s Hall, a purpose-built space that stands today at the center of the Peabody Essex Museum. On page 136, Schwartz quotes Sketches of History, Life and Manners, in the United States author Anne Royall as describing the collection as “worth all the cabinets and museums put together in the United States.” 

Collecting the Globe book cover

Collecting the Globe book cover

On August 31, 2020, Schwartz spoke to a group of Decorative Arts Trust members during a virtual Book Chat program. Collecting the Globe was the Trust’s summer reading selection, an annual benefit for members at the Patron level and above. The Trust also plans to visit Salem for a symposium in Fall 2021 and will include the East India Marine Society Hall in the itinerary. 

Founded by a group of seafaring men to support their community, the Salem East India Marine Society was only open to Captains and Supercargoes (business officers) on ships that sailed beyond the standard Atlantic World, past the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) and Cape Horn (South America). Although its founding members were all white men, they came from different social strata. Restricting membership to men who had sailed in certain capacities allowed brilliant working-class minds like Nathaniel Bowditch to join. Schwartz reveals how Bowditch and others like him molded this group and its benevolent intentions into something that lasted far longer than its century of independent existence. In the Society’s original charter, meeting minutes, and correspondence lies the fervent pursuit of knowledge and a determination to provide public access to it through a physical collection.

In addition to mercantile cargoes, mariners also brought natural specimens and other wonders to donate to the Society. Schwartz utilizes the links between object and archival resources to explore the full story of this group’s collecting habits, revealing why certain things were kept and others traded. Animals like sea cucumbers, harvested in the South Pacific, were favored by Chinese merchants. These animals facilitated a new level of trade that Salem’s residents had not yet experienced. Other species proved too fascinating to leave alone or trade away; the nation’s first penguin was displayed at the Society’s Hall in Salem about 1820 after it was captured in the Falkland Islands. Schwartz proves these kinds of natural objects not only grounded the Society’s goals in collecting, but they inspired its future stewards to focus on natural history. Although the Peabody Academy of Science absorbed the Society’s natural history collection in 1867, Schwartz argues that subsequent repositories would never have existed if not for the pioneering work of Salem East India Marine Society members.

Schwartz’s mastery of material culture and the written record shines when he extends these scholarly analyses into deeper meaning in his chapters on exhibitions and visitor experience. Early in its history, the Society would perform annual parades through Salem’s streets. Many members and hired assistants would be dressed in clothing purchased from Asia and the Indian subcontinent, thereby creating both a spectacle of otherness and demanding respect for the mariners’ work abroad. Through a 21st-century lens, these parades of exoticism are insensitive to these indigenous cultures because they cross a line from respect to appropriation. However, Schwartz deftly sets the scene for readers to understand that in these early days of the Society’s existence, displays in the streets and the Hall were done to honor the people they met overseas. The Society aimed to broaden horizons of all visitors, whether or not they had the luxury of traversing the globe.

Through shifting display practices, collections management, or visitor reviews in public newspapers or private journals, the Society’s collections left distinct impressions on guests from all walks of life. However, public access was not nearly as open as originally defined. The Hall’s guest book shows visitors from all over the world, including India, China, and even First Nations delegates. The signatures reveal the duality in the Society’s acceptance of the public, as black men and women were refused entry until after the Civil War. While discrimination was typical at the time, this dichotomy reveals a deeper struggle amongst Society members to fulfill their mission and evolve.

Model of united states frigate constitution, c. 1812. Wood. United States. 59 x 76 x 29 inches (149.86 x 193.04 x 73.66 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Commander Isaac Hull, 1813. M47. Photography by Walter Silver.

Model of united states frigate constitution, c. 1812. Wood. United States. 59 x 76 x 29 inches (149.86 x 193.04 x 73.66 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Commander Isaac Hull, 1813. M47. Photography by Walter Silver.

Other visitors were lucky enough to have the Society bring their collections outside of Salem. Schwartz opens complexities beyond visitation to address collections management. During the War of 1812, Society members agreed to share a model of the U.S.S. Constitution as part of a banquet in Boston. In firing off miniature cannons mounted on its decks solely for the spectacle, the model became damaged and needed expert repairs. Without a model maker in attendance, the Society brought forward British prisoners to repair the miniature vessel—and the prisoners then provided a bill for services rendered. This kind of display was an important part of the Society’s contribution to American seafaring culture, and it demonstrates a striking determination to share their wealth of collections. The Society sought to provide the best care and access to their objects, even if that meant paying prisoners of war. In highlighting and exploring these stories, Schwartz provides readers with both a stronger argument for and a clearer understanding of the fact that the Society was ruled by a group of men who were determined yet flawed. 

When visitors to the Hall stepped upstairs into the vast expanse of mysterious objects and intriguing stories, they celebrated a global community and the determination of a group of men to encourage discovery. Drawn in by Michele Felice Cornè’s sign on the street, filled with symbols of Salem’s maritime prowess, individuals from all over the world explored American identity, cross-cultural exchanges, and unrealized biases through a vast array of objects. By first introducing readers to the Society’s members and then focusing on the material legacy they left, Schwartz identifies key practices and decisions made by a single group of men that have influenced museum policies and our understanding of the “other” for generations. 

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