Salem Sets Sail

After the Revolutionary War, ships from a little Massachusetts seaport brought the new nation wares from China and the mysterious East

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At Berliner’s urging, the museum acquired the house, furnishings and all, and shipped it to Massachusetts in 19 containers. A crew of Chinese carpenters and masons specifically brought over for the task spent a year reassembling the 3,707 pieces—from wooden pegs to decorative columns—with traditional hand tools, completing it last spring.

“The house hasn’t changed much since it was built 200 years ago,” Berliner says, “but we wanted to do more than show its architecture. You can see the layers of time here.” A faded poster of Mao Tse-tung graces a bedroom wall, and graffiti nearby proclaims: “Down with the counter-revolutionaries!”—most likely scrawled during the 1960s Cultural Revolution to forestall accusations of capitalist decadence.

Chairman Mao, in whose name that upheaval occurred, may seem quite removed from the utterly bourgeois impetus behind the China trade, but in a museum about East-West connections, he is as apropos as a blue-and-white teapot. “This was never a museum about international trade,” says director Dan Monroe. “Its founders were entrepreneurs engaged in trade, yes, but they were also among the handful of people at the time who had direct personal knowledge of the world’s incredibly diverse peoples, art and cultures. They were far more familiar with Canton and Calcutta and the PacificIslands than other Americans were with what lay west of the Mississippi.” At the annual banquet of the East India Marine Society in 1804, Salem’s ever-curious sea captains raised their glasses to toast their five-year-old museum, with its ceramic Buddhas and Fijian war clubs: “That every mariner may possess the history of the world.”


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