Visitors look over the "Forbidden City" exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum.

SALEM — Gale Rosenberger and her daughter, Alexa, drove down from New Hampshire yesterday to go to the Peabody Essex Museum. They were not alone.

"This is one of those things not to be missed," Rosenberger said, standing in the cold outside the museum.

Thousands of museum-goers, young and old, have passed through the PEM's main entrance this week to see "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures From the Forbidden City" before it closes Sunday after a record run.

The museum estimates 105,000 people will see the exhibit, making it the second-largest show since the Peabody Essex reopened in 2003 following a major expansion. It is topped only by "Painting Summer in New England," which drew nearly 150,000 patrons during a longer run in the warm summer months of 2006.

"The numbers have been staggering," said Jay Finney, the museum's chief marketing officer.

The average daily attendance — the true benchmark of any exhibit — for "Forbidden City," which ran for less than four months in the dark days of fall and winter, may be the highest of any PEM show.

December's total doubled the previous record for that month.

The 2,700 people who came last Sunday was the second-largest single day since the reopening.

The numbers go on and on.

"We had over 2,000 people (Wednesday)," Finney said. "That's a Wednesday in the first week of January."

The crowds are not a total surprise. The PEM knew this would be a big show — but not this big.

For a lot of reasons, this exhibit caught the public's attention.

The paintings, murals, furniture and jades from the private garden enclave of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-96) have not been seen before by the public. The exhibit is so important that it will make only two more stops, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Milwaukee Art Museum, before returning to China.

The advance media coverage was impressive. In addition to the usual outlets, it was covered by The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Time magazine gave it a major spread.

Word quickly spread among patrons that this was a once-in-a-lifetime show.

"I probably will never go to Beijing," Rosenberger said as she stood outside the PEM entrance. "This is as close as I'll get to the treasures of the Forbidden City."

The museum, which extended its hours for this show, is open tonight and Saturday until 8 p.m. The exhibit closes Sunday at 5 p.m.

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