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Peabody Essex Museum prepares for expansion

Posted by Ryan Mooney  July 12, 2012 01:21 PM

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The earliest physical indications of a massive renovation at Peabody Essex Museum are visible on the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall.

Last November, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) announced a $650 million campaign, one of the largest fundraising operations ever undertaken by a United States art museum, along with ambitious plans to renovate the institution.

Specific details have not been released as the museum works with London-based Rick Mather Architects to finalize plans, but scaffolding is up in front of the oldest section of the museum and light roof work is beginning in preparation for the estimated $200 - $250 million project.

The work is expected to finish in 2017.

"We're basically in the baby steps as we lead up to construction," said Whitney Van Dyke, senior press officer for PEM. "So we're doing things like replacing the roof to East India Marine Hall that needed replacing so that we can move forward with the further expansion and design."

The East India Marine Hall dates back to about 1825.

"It's sort of the founding building of the museum," Van Dyke explains. "That is the pinnacle building, the foundational building."

PEM is already home to 1.8 million objects - including paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, textiles, architecture and decorative objects - and the 175,000-square-foot expansion will open up more gallery space for international exhibits.

According to Van Dyke, the museums 800,000-piece photography collection is the oldest and largest in the country.

"It means so much to what the museum can do in terms of exhibiting our permanent collection, but also being able to create further exhibitions and having international touring exhibitions come to the museum," Van Dyke said.

On July 16, a handful of galleries will close for renovations, with some relocating and opening later on this year, and others remaining closed until the spring of 2013. A list of affected galleries can be found here.

The museum will also put $350 million from the campaign to put directly into its endowment, propelling the country's oldest continuously running museum into the top 10 of museums nationwide.

The total campaign eclipses the previous record set by the Museum of Fine Arts with a $504 million campaign that was completed in 2008. New galleries will be named to reflect some of the most generous benefactor's that made it possible.

"It's really been quite a group effort," Van Dyke said. "It's really been quite astounding."

The last renovation PEM underwent was in 2003, when Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie refurbished the main lobby and five house galleries.

Van Dyke speaks highly of Safdie's work - which echoes some of the already existing historic architecture in the area - but eventually chose Mather's architecture firm from a pool of about a dozen that submitted designs.

"Part of the reason why we chose them is because his firm really specializes in navigating tricky spaces and bridging old buildings with new buildings, and can essentially clarify some of the gallery space," Van Dyke said. "It's a tight site and it has historic buildings, the new wing; a lot has to happen to make it work."

The project is still obtaining required permits and working its way through city boards. Details will be released to the public as design plans finalize and the work receives final approval.

Ryan Mooney can be reached at

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