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Going Batty –  A Review of Bats! At the Peabody Essex Museum

Those making their annual pilgrimage to the Witch City this year should make time in between the ghost tours and psychics to visit the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), located in the heart of Salem, Massachusetts. Though Boston-area residents are often familiar with PEM’s excellent exhibits and programming, visitors might be drawn to spookier attractions. However, one of PEM’s fall exhibits focuses on one of our favorite flying Halloween friends. Bats! provides a family friendly exploration of the often unjustly maligned and misunderstood creatures.

The exhibition was organized and produced by ExplorationWorks! and Build 4 Impact Inc. with assistance from The Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center.  Bats! takes an interdisciplinary approach which explores bats in art, science, technology, and cultures across the world. Exhibition curator and Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center, Janey Winchell, states in an interview with PEM that most people know relatively little about bats, but that regardless of their opinion on or experiences with bats, “[…] once people are in the exhibition, they will discover things that relate to them in their own lives.” As a long-time nature nerd and bat lover, I had to see the exhibit for myself and the Peabody Essex didn’t disappoint! 

The exhibit is laid out in a non-linear fashion which helped avoid overcrowding in areas of the exhibit space and allowed visitors to explore at their own pace. The exhibit space is broken up by a series of temporary gallery walls, which created unique spaces within the exhibit while still allowing for wheelchair accessibility. Like many other visitors, I entered the exhibit and moved through it mainly clockwise. Ecological and biological facts on bats alternate with art and objects. I enjoyed that the exhibit text included abundant pictures of bats to illustrate concepts while visually pleasing.

Interactives are abundant in this exhibit and hit the rare mark of being engaging for all age levels. Some interactives are simple, such as flip boards for true and false bat facts and “bats around the world.” The bats around the world interactive is interesting and engaging but the text was small and difficult to read. The focal point of the exhibit is a live bat interactive featuring Egyptian Fruit Bats. The bats can be viewed from outside or by crawling in and looking up from inside a plastic bubble. Visitors of all ages enthusiastically crawled through the interactive. Grown adults without children were excited by the prospect of looking up from the tunnel at the bats. However, incorporating living beings into an exhibit always raises issues and questions. The bats weren’t very active and were all huddled together in the corner of the enclosure. True or not, this gave the impression that the bats are not pleased with their current situation. It also made it difficult for visitors to spot them. PEM seems to have anticipated some concern from visitors, including a label, “Frequently Asked Questions About the Bat Colony.” The label clarifies how the bats are cared for and where they came from…to an extent. The label states that the bats are from “Indiana Wild, a conservation and education organization.” I think it would be beneficial to clarify how that organization came to have the bats, whether they were seized from animal trafficking or born in captivity, and why it is not possible to release them. As a visitor, these were questions I had as I grappled with the ethics of displaying live animals. However, the impact of this interactive display cannot be overstated. Visitors connected with bats on a level that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. 

Another popular, but less controversial interactive is a table game which represents the threats to bats’ survival. Two partners must tilt a table to shift a ball through a maze, avoiding holes that represent challenges facing bats. This is a novel interactive unlike any I’ve seen in previous exhibits. The game is well designed, both fun and informative. I learned more than a few things about the threats facing Flying Foxes. For example, I had no idea that farmers internationally poisoned fruit to control predation of their crops! Other interactives include comparing human, bat, and bird bones on a magnetic board and making folded paper bats. The exhibit balances textual elements with interactives nicely, resulting in a dynamic exhibit appealing to visitors of all ages and experience.

The textual elements of the exhibit are just as engaging as the spectacular interactives. One section of the exhibit covered perceptions of bats across space and time, covering Africa, Asia, and the Americas. I overheard one visitor remark on the perception of bats in China, “Bats are considered lucky! I didn’t know that!” Other visitors enjoyed the section on bats in pop-culture, flipping through a series of posters featuring bats in movies and television. My personal favorite as a fan of folklore and history was the section on how European stigma and superstition surrounding bats formed. Spooky 17th century woodcuts of witches and demons with bat wings certainly felt appropriate for the season! “Which Came First the Bat or the Vampire?” explored the enduring connection between bats and European vampire lore. The labels explained complex concepts from culture, religion, and folklore at an accessible level which kept clear of judgment.

If the goal of Bats! is to challenge the stigma around the animal, it’s certainly a success. Two PEM interns acting as docents for the exhibit, Charlotte and Martha, stated that the exhibit has seen up to 1,000 visitors a day, with the lowest attendance still being 200. Charlotte, a student at Endicott College stated, “I generally hear positive feedback […] bats tend to be stigmatized and people’s perceptions of bats have changed positively.” Martha added that people can leave feedback on the exhibit in a notebook near the exit. Flipping through the notebook, I saw glowing reviews of the exhibit, exclamations of love for bats, and even fun bat cartoons! One visitor remarked, “10/10 recommend. respectfully want to boop the bats nose.” I can think of no greater endorsement than a nose boop! The exhibition, Bats!, attempts a multicultural and interdisciplinary exploration of bats in a relatively small package and it succeeds.

Bats! Curator Interview, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbJXURbdsec.
Peabody Essex Museum. “Bats!” Accessed October 22, 2023. https://www.pem.org/exhibitions/bats.
Peabody Essex Museum. “Meet Winged Creatures of the Night in PEM’s Fall Exhibition, Bats!,” July 31, 2023. https://www.pem.org/press-news/meet-winged-creatures-of-the-night-in-pems-fall-exhibition-bats.
Rubino, Tony. Love Hate Bat, 2019. Acrylic on canvas. Photograph by Madeline Smith. 

Article by: Madeline Smith

MA Candidate, History and Museum Studies

Tufts University ’24



Spooky Spots for the Museum Ghoul

With a cool breeze in the air, leaves falling to the ground, and the nights getting dark sooner, Halloween is on its way. Spend your Halloween (or lead up to Halloween) taking in one of the many spooky season activities and exhibits being held by museums in Massachusetts.


Historic Haunts

Gore Place (Waltham) Frightful Fridays

Pairing a historic mansion with four spooky tales, the Gore Place’s Frightful Fridays are an entertaining way to spend an evening–and maybe get a chill down your spine. Held Friday nights at 6:30 and 7:45 PM through October 27th.

Hammond Castle Museum (Gloucester) Spiritualism Tours

For those seeking a candlelit and gothic tour around a charming castle, look no further than the Spiritualism Tours held at Hammond Castle Museum, which touches on the history of the Spiritualism movement in America and the Hammond family’s connection to it. Held on Wednesday and Thursday evenings through October 26th. 

Old North Church (Boston) After Hours Crypt Tours

Brave souls looking to get up close and personal with the dead will delight in Old North Church’s After Hours Crypt Tours. An extended version of their regular crypt tours, the After Hours tour is jam-packed with stories of people buried in the crypt and the latest archaeological discoveries. Tours are held every night at 5:30 and 6:15 PM from October 26th to the 31st.

The Mount (Lenox) Ghost Tours

Having written a number of ghost stories herself, it comes as no surprise that Edith Wharton’s estate, The Mount, offers ghost tours. Spend the evening walking the halls and hearing the eerie tales of ghostly encounters that have happened over the years. Tour start times vary, but are held through October 31st.


Eerie Exhibits

Peabody Essex Museum (Salem) Salem Witch Trials Walk

Looking to extend the exhibit experience of PEM’s “The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice”? Do their Salem Witch Trials Walk, an audio guided tour that starts in the museum but takes you through the streets of Salem. Included with admission. Exhibit runs until November 26th. 

Historic Salem Inc. (Salem) Architecture of Fear: The Victorian Haunted House

Calling all architecture and horror fans! You won’t want to miss Historic Salem Inc.’s Architecture of Fear walking tour that discusses why Victorian architecture is so heavily associated with haunted houses and the horror genre. Tours held on Sunday October 22nd and 29th at 5:30 PM. 

Salem Witch Museum (Salem) Witches: Evolving Perceptions

Visit one of Salem’s most notable permanent exhibits, “Witches: Evolving Perceptions,” which “explores the meaning behind the word witch and evolution of the image of the witch over time.” Hours vary per day, but tickets must be purchased ahead of time and go on sale for the day at midnight.


Frightening Festivities

Old Sturbridge Village (Sturbridge) Phantoms by Firelight

Old Sturbridge Village’s Halloween celebration is back and “bigger than ever!” Whether you’re looking to see circus acts, learn about funeral traditions in the 1830s, hear spooky stories by a bonfire, or simply sink your teeth into seasonal treats and beverages, Old Sturbridge Village has it all. Held every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night from 4:30 to 9 PM through October 29th.

Trustees of the Reservations (Stockbridge) Naumkeag Pumpkin Show

If you’re more of a pumpkin and apple cider kind of person, head to Naumkeag’s Pumpkin Show in Stockbridge, where you’ll find more than 1,500 Jack-o-lanterns, hundreds of mums, hot cider, and fall treats. Held every night Wednesday to Sunday through October 29th. 

Trustees of the Reservations (Lincoln) Full Moon Tours at deCordova

For those looking to howl at the moon while surrounded by art, the Full Moon Tours offered at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum will be a perfect fit. Held once a month (not just during October), the Full Moon Tour in October will happen on Sunday, October 29th from 7-8 PM.

Haunting Attractions for the Halloween Season

Agatha Wojciechowsky. American (born Germany), 1896-1986.
aw 0323, 1963.
Watercolor on paper.
Courtesy of the Collection of Steven Day, New York, NY

Image from the Minneapolis Institute of Art from the Supernatural America exhibit.

It only takes a few steps into a pharmacy or grocery in the month of October to see the impact of Halloween on the public. Aisles are filled to the brim with candy, fake spiderwebs, and gregarious costumes in anticipation of a raucous holiday season. As the town of Salem prepares for a record-breaking month of tourism, one thing is abundantly clear: mainstream interest in the occult, the scary, and the supernatural is stronger than ever.

Can this affection for the macabre manifest in the museum world? Is it possible to run exhibitions on the things that go bump in the night? Would people view a museum as the authority on the supernatural? In short, yes! Many museums have capitalized on the paranormal. Some institutions have featured supernatural themes in rotating exhibitions while others dedicate their entire exhibition capacity to allegedly haunted objects. For example, the recent traveling exhibit Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art enjoyed well-attended displays at the Toledo Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Speed Art Museum.

Of course, a bizarre and subversive topic like the supernatural lends itself to dramatic and otherworldly interpretations, with many institutions blurring the line between museum and haunted house. But rather than dismiss these unconventional museums for their unorthodox methods, we should approach them with curiosity—they are tapping in on an interest that is in high demand. If these institutions can generate excitement for visiting exhibits, they are making an invaluable contribution to the museum and historic house community.

Here are some haunting attractions to enjoy this Halloween:

Zak Bagan’s The Haunted Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada may look like a haunted mansion from the outside, but it holds hundreds of artifacts relating to true crime and the supposed supernatural. With thousands of positive reviews, it is clear that the Haunted Museum is providing an exciting and memorable visitor experience.

The Paranormal Museum in Ashbury Park, NJ is a popular roadside attraction in the New Jersey community. Combined with the Paranormal Books & Curiosities shop, the Museum is home to many haunted artifacts and ghost-hunting equipment.

Of course, historic Salem makes this list with the Salem Witch Museum, one of many occult museums and historic houses in this scenic New England town. At the Witch Museum, visitors can expect to learn about the origins and impacts of the Salem Witch Trials and will be encouraged to consider more modern iterations of this community-wide panic.

Image courtesy of Save Our Cemeteries.

No list of haunted attractions would be complete without mention of New Orleans. For those seeking a more interactive activity, a cemetery tour is the perfect fit. Explore the historic crypts and mausoleums of Orleans parish while learning about some of the cemetery’s most prominent residents. Tours conducted by Save Our Cemeteries, Inc are historically accurate and mutually beneficial—proceeds earned from tours are reinvested into the critical preservation of these historic landmarks.

Happy Halloween from the Tufts Museum Studies Program—we hope you have the happiest and safest of holidays!


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History & Museum Studies

Tufts University

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