PEM Hires National Gallery of Art Curator

By Shelley A. Sackett /

Peabody Essex Museum has appointed Sarah Kennel, Ph.D., as its new curator of photography. Kennel joins the PEM this month after a nine-year curatorial tenure at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where she helped oversee the National Gallery’s permanent collection and managed an active exhibition program.

“Sarah’s comprehensive knowledge of the artistic and technological history of the medium, combined with her appetite for the interdisciplinary and photography’s dialogue with multiple art forms, will advance PEM’s reputation as a top-flight cultural destination that provides fascinating, provocative experiences with photography,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator, in a press release.

Kennel, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of California in Berkley and an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, is excited by PEM’s vast 800,000-piece photography collection.

“The sheer number of photographs in the collection is both exhilarating and daunting,” Kennel said by e-mail. “I am also intrigued by such a rich and unusual collection that has been formed so early, relative to other photography collections, and yet remains to be fully explored.”

She is particularly interested in the significant collections of 19th-century photographs made in Asia. Although the traditional history of photography centers on France, Britain and, to a lesser extent, America, it was, she pointed out, a global medium that traveled across the world and was adapted in many different ways for different purposes.

“I think the PEM’s collection can illuminate this complex story and also help us understand the widespread appeal and importance of photography from its origins to today — it was, from 1839 on, the most social of media,” she said.

Kennel is known for curating interdisciplinary exhibitions that pair photography with, for example, dance, costumes, textiles, film and music. While her primary focus will be on the photography collection and organizing exciting photography exhibitions, she looks forward to bringing this penchant for interdisciplinary displays to the PEM.

“After all,” she said, “the museum has been a leader in unconventional, exciting, mixed media installations. I think the first order of business will be to collaborate with my colleagues across the museum to integrate photography into mixed-media displays in the galleries, a goal that is already in place, but I am always thinking about how photography interacts and resonates with different forms of visual culture. I am especially interested in the rich relationship between photography, the birth of early film and the historical avant-garde — we’ll see where it goes.”

When Kennel was 4 years old, her father, a physicist, accepted a one-year sabbatical appointment in Paris. She recalled being dazzled by the cultural riches of Paris and its surroundings and is eager to collaborate with colleagues to come up with exhibitions that appeal to a wide range of audiences and offer different points of entry.

“Exhibitions that introduce us to different worlds — that help us enter an imaginative space, a different time, a different mindset — can be very powerful for everyone, but especially young minds as they seek to understand and interpret the world. And integrating a hands-on component somewhere is important — what better way than to learn than by doing? That being said, I didn’t need bells and whistles to fall in love with art when I was 4. I only needed the opportunity and access — so that’s the crucial first step. Every child should have the opportunity to explore and discover great works of art,” she said.

Kennel is excited to join the PEM team at a time when the museum is poised for a major expansion. “I love that the PEM is such a central part of the cultural life of the region, and I can’t wait to be a part of it. As a Los Angeles native, I also welcome tips on surviving the Massachusetts winters,” she said.

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