That's what the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., had in mind when pulling together "Odyssey: A Journey Into World Art," says John Grimes, the museum's deputy director for special projects.
A team of curators spent more than two years tackling this 200th-anniversary project, in which each curatorial department was asked to suggest 25 to 30 of the most superlative objects in the museum's vast inventory for inclusion.
"We talked about different ways you could organize them," says Paula Richter, one of the show's curators, explaining how clusters of objects emerged. The intent was to inspire new ideas that link different arts and cultures in ways that "push the boundaries a little bit," she says.
Take, for example, grouping traditional landscapes with some very nontraditional ones, including a native American hunting scene drawn on a massive buffalo skin.
Ms. Richter points out an even more abstract idea of "landscape": a Micronesian stick chart made of gracefully arched twigs. "It's a beautiful, geometrical representation of wave patterns in the Pacific region. It's kind of a map, in a sense."
In a grouping of "portraits," an abstract Samurai face guard shares space with painted portraits, one of a woman from 1833, the other of a young girl done last year.
Richter says that museums in the last 50 years have gone toward "highly mediated" visitor experiences, in which audio tours and labels create a one-way flow of information. "Odyssey" tries to draw out the visitor's own ability to make connections and find meaning.
"People who are used to being led through exhibitions in a linear path ... can struggle with that," she says. "In 'Odyssey,' you don't need to look at every single object. The idea is to pick and choose."
Putting visitors to work mentally is part of the mandate here, museum director Dan Monroe says. Museums in the 21st century, he anticipates, will spur people to discover the "profound interconnections between people and cultures around the world."
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