SALEM — The new wing at the Peabody Essex Museum finally has its anchor...literally.
Museum officials celebrated the return of a 4,450-pound hand-forged anchor to Essex Street at a ceremony Monday afternoon. The anchor, which was on display in front of the museum prior to its recent expansion project, has been kept outdoors in Rowley by the museum’s Collection Center for the last couple of years.
The origin of the anchor isn’t completely known. It was forged sometime between 1790 and 1812 for use on an unknown vessel. It was given to the museum in 1906 through the U.S. Navy.
The anchor returned just shy of two weeks before the museum opened its new $125 million expansion on Saturday, Sept. 28.
The return to Salem has its own story. Taken down a few years ago as the expansion began, the anchor sat outside in Rowley and more recently was restored by museum staff.
“I see it as our collective responsibility to continue to show deep respect to the history and legacy that brought us here to this moment today,” said executive director Brian Kennedy on Monday. “Something I’ve been looking forward to since I took up this post is returning a very special museum object to its pride and place in front of East India Marine Hall.”
During his remarks, Kennedy, who has been on the job for about 10 weeks, noted the anchor was forged at around the time the East India Marine Society was founded in 1799, for which the Marine Hall was built. That organization later became the Peabody Academy of Science and, in 1992, merged with the Essex Institute to create today’s Peabody Essex Museum.
“It has been here since 1906,” Kennedy said, “so for over half of the time of the East India Marine Hall, the anchor was here.”
During the ceremony, the anchor was dropped on top of a 2019 gold American dollar, carrying on a tradition of a ship’s captain placing a silver or gold coin under a newly built ship’s mast before its first raising. The coin was installed by Samuel Byrne, chairperson of the museum’s Board of Trustees and the museum’s figurative captain, as Kennedy called him.
Reception to the anchor’s return has been very positive, most notably seen from advocates for Phillips Library, the museum’s historic research library that until a half-decade ago lived in Plummer Hall and the Daland House on Essex Street. The library’s relocation to Rowley sparked intense criticism from advocates in the past two years as many felt the city’s history belonged within its geographic boundaries.
“It’s a fantastic gesture from the PEM, which is much appreciated by the community,” said Anne Sterling, an advocate for the library. “We think Mr. Kennedy is off to a roaring start, showing a lot of good. And by the number of PEM employees that are out here, I think it’s also meaningful for them. There are quite a few PEM people that came out and watched this.”
Sterling said the anchor “has a lot of sentimental value,” and that it’s “almost one of the first visible community things he’s done other than meeting with the entire community. And the fact that it came back with such speed is very appreciated by the online community.”
Flora Tonthat, another advocate for the library, said the return of the anchor “is what we wanted, what we hoped for.”
“We were very concerned when we saw it in the back (of the Collection Center), amidst the HVAC facilities in Rowley,” Tonthat said. “All the people who’ve fought for the Phillips Library, they’re ecstatic because we need our historic fabric to stay in Salem, and we’re so glad that they’re bringing history back.”
Kennedy called the anchor “a new era.”
“As we drop anchor today, we’re establishing a new era for the museum — a new era that beckons us to think back and understand more deeply where we’ve come from in this city,” he said. “The anchor has made sure, by its placement, in fact, that PEM remains an anchor institution.”