The Peabody Essex is one of America's great museums but few people know it exists. Salem was the center of the China Trade and made a great fortune from it. PEM owns several houses, which are open for tours, and has a vast collection of Asian art - mostly Chinese and Japanese - as well as a large collection of materials relating to the China Trade and more relating to New England history.
They also have a truly unique feature, the Yin Yu Tang house, an actual large stone Chinese family house that was meticulously taken apart and reconstructed in a special courtyard. It is completely as it was, down to the speaker for receiving party propaganda broadcasts and the kitchen implements left on tables.
PEM mounts major shows, such as the treasures from Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire and one of the great treasure houses of the world. As I write this review, they are showing treasures from the Kingdom of Siam, the only place this amazing show of objects never seen outside Thailand will visit on the east coast.
PEM's shows cover a wide range. Again as I write this review, they are presenting aerial photographs by Alex MacLean that turn patterns into profound and beautiful art.
PEW is rarely crowded and also has a great gift store. As disclosure, I'm a member though I live nowhere near Salem. Cheap parking is available at the parking garage attached to the small mall across the street. I also highly recommend the film at the Salem national park visitor center, also across the street in its own building. Fun and informative.