Obscuring the Wunderkammern: Figurehead in the Peabody Essex Museum

Installation artist Charles Sandison has coated the Peabody Essex Museum‘s East India Marine Hall in a dark, drifting sheath of digitized ship logs and journals .  Titled Figurehead, the enlarged strings of writings travel across the historical space’s walls, objects and visitors in disjointed paths that correspond with the weather of Salem, MA, via algorithms and data pulled from the internet. After adjusting to the visual overload of the installation in the same way one’s eyes adapt to a darkened room, the finer details began to emerge; the museum’s founding collection is also in this room, the paintings, figureheads and other artifacts absorbing the projected strands of text.  Physically overwritten by the ship captains’ perfected script and darkened to the point that many objects were unrecognizable, the East India Marine Society collection was transformed by Sandison’s installation into something distant and phantasmal that hovered above the otherwise conventional museum.

FreePort [no. 001]: Figurehead, Charles Sandison, East India Marine Hall, Peabody Essex Museum. Image from metrowestdailynews.com.

The Peabody Essex is the oldest museum in the United States currently in operation.  As its complicated name might suggest, the institution has gone through various mergings and additions since it opened to the public in 1825 as the East India Marine Society Hall. The namesake East India Marine Society of Salem, Massachusetts was a group of individuals who “…navigated the seas beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, as masters or supercargoes of vessels belong[ing] to to Salem,” as was outlined by the Society’s 1870 bylaws.  This group of sea travelers convened in order to share information about exploration of what they referred to as the East Indies; part of this mission included sharing the objects accumulated during their travels as the public collection that ultimately became the museum. It was though this effort that Society members created a particular asset: an authentic, American wunderkammern.

“East India Marine Hall and General View,” H.P. Ives, 1859-1885, stereoscope, image from New York Public Library.

The image of the original Peabody Essex, alongside that of Charles Wilson Peale’s collection, comprises what popular culture has taught us us envision when we hear the phrase, curiosity cabinet:” a wide assortment of aged cases and shelves filled with items that now would fall into specific museum genres, including natural history objects, historical artifacts and fine art. Most curiosity cabinets resulted from a particular aristocrat’s personal holdings of taxidermy, decorative objects and man-made wonders. Yet with roots in a collaborative founding rather than an individual’s point of view, the brand of wonder found in the East India Marine Society cabinet was also collective; as objects gathered by a group of entrepreneurs traveling trade routes in the 18th century there was a uniquely American aspect to this artifact compilation.

Charles Sandison’s Figurehead interacts with this original wunderkammern by projecting directly on top of its objects; figureheads from the Society’s ships absorb the glowing text most prominently but it also infiltrates the case containing a deteriorating, taxidermied penguin and floats across the paintings and busts of nineteenth century gentlemen.  Figurehead obscures all objects in the East India Marine Hall to the point that it is hard to even know for certain what one has seen while visiting this room; the pervading sense uncertainty characteristic of foreign environments has been created within one of the country’s most American spaces.

FreePort [no. 001]: Figurehead, Charles Sandison, East India Marine Hall, Peabody Essex Museum. Image from the Peabody Essex Museum.

While visiting the installation, other visitors I encountered in the space found the experience entirely frustrating; labels for the objects were impossible to find in the darkened room, as was often the case for the objects themselves.  The only readily available context was the reference to life at sea provided through the projected nautical jargon of the ship logs; the East India Marine Hall had been transformed into a place that could only be understood by viewing the objects extremely closely and deciphering the collection through the perceptions allowed by the conditions of the room. In this regard, Figurehead is  itself a total representation of the wonder to be found on an exploration.  While this affect is created by a media-based experience, it is also one that cannot be communicated through digital media alone; physically being in the East India Marine Hall is required.

Immediately outside the East India Marine Hall, the streets of Salem are flooded with commercial mini-museums, capitalizing primarily on the Salem Witch Trials and other clichéd urban legends connected to the region. These places are intended to appear wunderkammern-like without owning any objects that would be found in a true curiosity cabinet. One such place is the 40 Whacks Museum, which focuses on murderer Lizzie Borden and houses collections of skulls and hatchets, among other things.  The space is branded to look more or less like a wunderkammern, with aged props, elements of the grotesque among the collection and traditional cases much like those in the East India Marine Hall. Yet essentially all objects in the museum are reproductions, replicas and creative interpretations of historical objects, conceived of and arranged for the purpose of selling Lizzie Borden merchandise to tourists.

The 40 Whacks Museum, Salem, MA

Commercial museums like the 40 Whacks attempt to conform to the image pop culture has created for curiosity cabinets in order to capitalize on the public’s affinity for wonder. In contrast, Charles Sandison’s Figurehead is a contemporary version of a wunderkammern. Unlike commercial imitations, the artist has rethought the wunderkammern in terms of both the history of this concept and the Peabody Essex museum’s own history.  In this regard, Sandison distilled the essence a curiosity cabinet: the uniqueness of the individual museum in which it resides. Figurehead’s true medium was the historical context of the Peabody Essex Museum reconfigured into a representation that bridges the digital and physical roles museums now play. Poignantly, the relationship between physical and digital information is one museums still struggle to negotiate and fully understand; Figurehead‘s successful merging of the dichotomy suggests there is still something to be learned from the wunderkammern, even for the institutions built upon its foundation.