This post is a follow up to my earlier one about a recent visit to Salem, Mass., a place my family has been to many times. Rosemary and I try to get around the region in the summer especially, and a day trip to Salem is always a good choice. Our destination was the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), whose special art, history, and culture exhibitions are as close to “blockbuster” scale as you will find outside a big city. The PEM is right downtown, across from a city parking garage and the Visitor Center for Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Salem has had the National Park Service in town since 1938, exactly 40 years before Lowell’s national park was established. As a visitor destination, Salem goes back. The PEM originated in the exhibit hall of the East India Marine Society in 1825, and the House of the Seven Gables, a 1688 building featured in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name, opened for tours in 1910. Of course, Salem is familiar to many of us for the witch trials and punishments in 1692; 300 years later, the city dedicated the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, a subtle, artistic outdoor memorial about a brutal chapter in the city’s story.
At the PEM, we had come to see a much talked-about exhibit of seascapes by J.M.W. Turner, whose paintings and drawings span the late 1700s through the mid-1800s. He was a force in the British art world. Not only are his works on display, but the PEM gathered related marine-themed paintings by his contemporaries and some predecessors. He is not someone I knew a lot about until reading the labels on the gallery walls. It is always a bonus to have Rosemary the art historian as a guide on museum visits. The place was packed. We didn’t know we had chosen a “free day” at the PEM (usually $18 adults), an opportunity provided by grants and contributions from sponsors such as the Highland Street Foundation, a Newton-based private foundation that promotes, among other things, “Free, Fun Fridays” at cultural institutions around the state. There were more than 1,000 people fanned out across the museum while we were there for 90 minutes. Maybe 2,000. They just kept coming. Tour groups, youth groups, many Chinese people (the PEM has the extraordinary, late 18th century Yin Yu Tang House, relocated from China), senior citizens and young adults, couples, etc. Turner’s epic painting The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 alone is worth the visit. It is presented opposite another huge masterpiece about the battle. The exhibition was organized by the National Maritime Museum of England. A comprehensive catalog ($45 paperback) allows a visitor to take away part of the experience for later enjoyment.
Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar (web image courtesy of PEM)
From the museum we headed for Finz at Pickering Wharf, a slightly upscale seafood restaurant fronting the marina. It was about a seven-minute walk. We started with cold shrimp and cooked crab before eating grilled scallops on salad and clams (whole and chopped) with linguine. Everything was good. The plan was to then head to the House of the Seven Gables to see the gardens, which we had read about online. When we got there, about ten minutes by foot, following a wide red line painted on the sidewalk, like the Freedom Trail pedestrian guide in Boston, we decided to take the guided tour. (Note to Lowell: Let’s get a red line from the national park Visitor Center at Market Mills on Market Street to the Boott Cotton Mills Museum at the foot of John Street, across town.) The gardens and grounds are colorful and groomed. A gardener was busy trimming vines. The House, which has a large, free parking lot about the size of the city lot behind Lowell’s Whistler House Museum of Art, is a small complex of buildings, including Hawthorne’s birthplace (there’s a desk upon which The Scarlet Letter may have been written) and a spacious welcome center where people buy tickets ($12 adults) and wait for the next guided tour that lasts about 30 minutes. Our guide was a man who could have been a retired school teacher, based on his interaction with kids in our 12-person group. We had to wait a few minutes to start because 20 young people in yellow t-shirts slipped in ahead of us. The house is a quirky old place with a secret staircase and lots of antique furniture and housewares. It’s a bit of a trip, no pun intended, to make it up the narrow stairs and over the thresholds room to room. You hear details from the novel as the guide moves through the house, eventually landing in the attic where he counts out the seven gables on a model of the house.
That was the end of our tourist day in Salem. We walked back through a residential area with many historic houses marked by plaques, an area not unlike the edge of the Acre near downtown Lowell. We passed a park ranger on his way somewhere and were passed by open-air trolley buses carrying passengers around to the various attractions. At what is billed as the oldest candy shop in America, we bought ginger drops and licorice. With luck, we had picked a warm sunny day in July. Salem looked good in the areas we visited. The streets were busy by early afternoon. I didn’t mention the present-day witch thing, a theme that is nearly out of control in Salem, but we weren’t there for the occult and gore. To Salem’s credit, the community has figured out how to manage the history and horror story-lines simultaneously. And they aren’t trapped in long-ago history. Before Turner, the big show at the PEM was about Southern California-style design in the 1950s. A gorgeous teal convertible was still on display in the lobby.