ROWLEY — It's labeled as PEM Unit 4014 and stands 60 inches tall, 117 inches wide. It boasts the appearance of the state seal and was hung over the long-since-removed west gate of Washington Square in Salem from 1805 to 1850.
Famed Salem woodworker Samuel McIntire carved the gate out of pine. Today, its colors have faded and it is wrapped in plastic, but it's forever preserved in perfectly climate-controlled conditions at the heart of Peabody Essex Museum's new Collection Center in Rowley.
It will still be several years before all of Peabody Essex's 1.8 million pieces of art and culture fill the space, but the museum has started opening up public access to the facility over the past few weeks. It hosted several local leaders and VIPs for a preview of the facility Wednesday.
The museum's collection center will hold a public open house on Saturday, July 14, from noon to 3 p.m. Registration is required in advance.
Among those touring the center Tuesday was Kim Driscoll, Salem's mayor — a leader who found herself for months stuck between the city's largest active tourist draw and residents angered by the museum's move of historical resources once at the Phillips Library to the Collection Center more than a dozen miles away.
"I don't know where all of this stuff was before," Driscoll said, standing surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of shelves 12 feet high, covered end to end in Phillips Library materials.
The Phillips Library "stacks," room 156 in the 120,000-square-foot facility, runs 20 aisles deep with three rows of aisles spanning varying lengths.
Until 2011, the library's 400,000 volumes and "more than a linear mile of manuscripts" were packed in a virtually inaccessible "stacks" addition on the back of the Phillips Library campus on Essex Street in Salem.
It was relocated to a temporary spot in Peabody with plans to renovate the Phillips Library's buildings and return the materials to them in 2013, but the plans never materialized. As the museum sank $15 million in the Rowley property between the site purchase and renovations, initial news came out that the Phillips Library wouldn't return to the Witch City. It sparked an uproar among several local historians and a movement to bring the materials back to Salem.
Now, select materials will return to the Phillips Library's building once it's renovated and re-opened around this time next year. The work to identify those materials is still coming together.
But for now, every single volume is organized in room 156 and completely accessible to researchers. It took library staff more than three months straight to relocate, unpack and organize the collection, one of them said during tours on Tuesday.
But still, it will be years before that work is done for the rest of the museum's physical collections. Staff giving tours highlighted that about 40 percent of the Museum's full inventory had moved to Rowley so far, with the rest still in Salem waiting for transport.
"Preserving those collections is a very, very basic responsibility for any museum, and preserving collections the size and diversity of PEMs has always been an immense challenge, simply because — as you'll see — the size of the collections are difficult to imagine," said Dan Monroe, the museum's executive director, ahead of the tours Tuesday. "Until the completion of this center, it's a challenge we just very simply couldn't entirely meet."
But at the same time, the Collection Center isn't just storage with a comfortable environment to keep things safe in.
Entire sections of the building, each with independent climate controls, allow curators and even outside researchers to work with items in both the library and the museum's "three-dimensional" collections.
Many of those spaces are still under construction.
"There will be a conservation lab. There will be spaces to do digital work with library collections to digitize the collection," Monroe said. "It'll be a place where there's a photography studio, and other functions that will help support all of the activities that are part of fulfilling the mission at PEM."
Driscoll asked for the crowd on hand Tuesday to celebrate the museum's "investment in history." That came with an obvious recognition of the past eight months of Phillips Library battles.
"We really covet our history. We're passionate about it," Driscoll said. "There's some of us that preferred that this building or this location would be someplace closer to Salem."
Still, there's something else to be seen in the Collection Center, according to Salem's mayor.
"We're so fortunate to have an investment being made in preserving these records that many of us covet," Driscoll said. "These are hard dollars to come by. It's important for folks who will be sitting in these chairs long after all of us are gone that these records are preserved in a way that pays homage to the history that we all love so much."
Robert Snow, a member of Rowley's Board of Selectmen, described history as "a long road. History is in the past, it's in the present, and it's in the future."
"Along that road, there are markers, and these markers tell us where we've been, where we're going," Snow said. "Those markers are museums, and those markers are very important to us — and I'm so glad that PEM has now decided this collection will be here in our town."
The Phillips Library's "reading room" has space for up to 14 researchers at a time. Two were working on projects Tuesday afternoon, among them Robin Mason, a Bedford resident and owner of the Witches of Massachusetts Bay website at witchesmassbay.com.
"I've been trying to get into this place for years," Mason said. "It's beautiful protection, not as pretty as the other one — which was gorgeous."
Mason was there to do research on an old Witch Trials-era building lost during urban renewal in the 1950s.
"I've worked in archives and libraries, so I know what it's like having to preserve papers," Mason said, then pausing to lean in and speak quieter. "But I want it back in Salem."
Mason laughed, pounding her fist into her hand. "I'm one of those," she said.
Still, there's something to be said of the access the facility provides for objects staying in Rowley.
"I've only been to the collections once, and I've tried to get there since then, but it's either closed, or I'm not a scholar, or some other problem," she said. "I'm just excited that it's open."
PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM COLLECTION CENTER
Address: 306 Newburyport Turnpike, Rowley, Mass.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Friday is by appointment only.
Open House: Saturday, July 14, from noon to 3 p.m. Bus transportation from Peabody Essex Museum in Salem is available.
To register: my.pem.org/auxiliary/Reserve.aspx?p=8476