This winter, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Mass., is opening a new gallery that, for the first time, combines its Native American and American collections. On this ground: to be and to belong to America brings together over 250 historical and contemporary works from its collections to reflect on what it means to belong to a community, a place, a family and a nation. Covering over 10,000 years of visual culture, the installation offers a range of voices and modes of expression, cultures expressed through different media including sculpture, painting, textiles and fashion, furniture, decorative arts, photography and video. Everywhere, aesthetic affinities emerge through time, cultures and geography. On this ground is sensitive to the pressing concerns of our time and provides an opportunity to grapple with our nation’s complex history while striving for a future that brings more connection and empathy. This revolutionary installation opens to the public on March 12, 2022.
“To place these two important collections in direct dialogue and give them equal prominence and gallery space on this scale is unprecedented among American museums and underscores that the American experience is unimaginable without the inclusion of art, Native American history and culture,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan. , Rose-Marie de PEM and Eijk van Otterloo Executive Director and CEO.
Since its founding in 1799, PEM has continuously collected and exhibited Native American art from its collection, which is one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere and world renowned for its quality, condition, provenance, duration, its exceptional media and geography. PEM’s American Art Collection showcases four centuries of artistic traditions to tell stories of American life and the ongoing cultural exchanges between the nation and the rest of the world. The museum was among the first in the nation to collect decorative arts, including furniture, home furnishings, and everyday objects that reflect New England’s material culture and life experiences.
More recently, initiatives to collect contemporary works in various mediums have resulted in a broader representation of American art and culture in the 21st century.
The installation begins with a video from the Massachusett tribe to Ponkapoag community elder Elizabeth Solomon to welcome visitors and share how Massachusetts has – despite thousands of years of natural and man-made change – an unbroken connection to that place now known as Salem. Solomon reminds us that wherever you are in the Americas, you are on Indigenous land, a concept underscored by an adjacent stone bear sculpture by a 17th-century Pawtucket artist. The introduction also includes the original Massachusetts Bay Charter (1629), on loan from the Salem Athenaeum as well as a poem by National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, whose work highlights a chorus of voices that make up America, illuminating defining moments and unsung heroes with empathy and hope. Together, these elements invite us to consider the beginning of American autonomy, religious freedom, political authority, and the power of creative expression.
American artists have long mythologized the first European contacts and the colonization of America. Two paintings exploring the iconic places where English pilgrims landed are installed in conversation with commissioned portraits of members of the Wampanoag community, taken by photographer Diné Will Wilson. The continued presence of the Wampanoag shines through in Wilson’s Critical Photographic Exchange project, a series of luminescent tintypes made in collaboration with the models.
Wilson’s portraits join more than 70 works by modern and contemporary artists, including Will Barnet, Steve Locke, Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk), Georgia O’Keeffe, Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Alison Saar, Hank Willis Thomas and Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee Nation).
“One of the goals of this installation is to deepen the appreciation of Native aesthetics across time and space, and also to bridge the disciplines of Native American and American art, which have historically separated,” said PEM curator Karen Kramer. of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture and co-curator of the project. “We are particularly excited about the transformative possibilities offered by bringing together different modes of aesthetic expression and cultural practice.”
Themes of Location and identity are found throughout the installation, in sections where PEM’s Native American and American artworks are combined or where each collection is considered individually. The Native American art sections are rooted in Indigenous knowledge that emphasizes ancestral connections between water, land, and sky; Indigenous self-representation, storytelling and fashion; and the continuum between past, present and future. American art sections focus on landscapes; the international relations and influences of Salem artists over the past 400 years; and a close examination of how the objects hold layers of meaning about individual and collective identity in America.
“The project recognizes the power dynamics that extend from historical events to the present and brings to the fore a multiplicity of American stories and voices to create a broader and more nuanced understanding of our histories,” said Sarah Chasse, associate curator and co-curator of the project. “Many contemporary works in the installation ask us to consider what stories have defined America and whether we are ready to recognize new stories.”
PEM’s Native American and American art collections converge through installation and prompt new ways of looking at the past by exploring historical figures, events and ideas. From religious persecution and conflict on North American lands in the 17th and 18th centuries, to slavery, migration and westward expansion, artists in turn create and dismantle national mythologies and challenge question the notion of a single, unified American experience. In addition to groupings of objects that deeply look at the legacies of colonization, On this ground offers lighter moments of joy, humor and visual enjoyment. Themes of place, women’s identity and generational connections between cultures offer fresh insights and surprising juxtapositions.
Process and collaboration
Collaboration has been at the heart of this installation project since its inception. PEM staff met with scholars from all areas of Native American and American art to consider approaches to integrating collections and how to augment and amplify historical and artistic intersections. Throughout the project, PEM Native American Fellows (2018-2021) have collaborated with the project through workshops and conservation and interpretive research. Curatorial staff have developed interactive sketchbook stations for visitors to share drawings, thoughts and responses. Additionally, in the galleries, visitors will see 30 wall labels contributed by a range of scholars, artists, community members, activists and poets who offer interpretation that extends beyond voices. museum curators to explore gallery themes and personal connections to the objects.
Resonance and Reflection
A display of 10,000-year-old stone archaeological tools from the Bull Brook site in present-day Ipswich, Massachusetts, concludes the installation as a reminder that we are on Indigenous land where place and l identity have been cultivated for many generations.