Released March 11, 2017
The New York Times | March 11, 2017
By JESS BIDGOOD
SALEM, Mass. — A few years ago, Bevil Conway, then a neuroscientist at Wellesley College, got an interesting request: Could he give a lecture to the curators and other staff at the Peabody Essex Museum, the art and culture museum here?
So Mr. Conway gathered his slides and started from the beginning, teaching the basics of neuroscience — “How neurons work, how neurons talk to each other, issues of evolutionary biology,” Mr. Conway said — to people who run an institution best known for its venerable collections of maritime and Asian art.
It was an early step in what has become a galvanizing mission for the museum’s director, Dan L. Monroe: harnessing the lessons of brain science to make the museum more engaging as attendance is falling around the country.
“If one’s committed to creating more meaningful and impactful art experiences, it seems a good idea to have a better idea about how our brains work,” he said. “That was the original line of thinking that started us down this path.”
The museum, known as P.E.M., has been looking at neuroscience to incorporate its lessons into exhibitions ever since. In an effort to build shows that engage the brain, it has tried breaking up exhibition spaces into smaller pieces? posting questions and quotes on the wall, instead of relying only on explanatory wall text? and experimenting with elements like smell and sound in visual exhibitions.
And those efforts are about to increase. The museum recently received a $130,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, a Bostonbased philanthropic organization, to bring a neuroscience researcher on staff, add three neuroscientists to the museum as advisers and publish a guide that will help other museums incorporate neuroscience into their exhibition planning.
“A lot of what we’re seeing in museums right now is the interpretation of pieces, or artwork,” said E. San San Wong, a senior program officer with the foundation. “What this is looking at is: How do we more actively engage people with art, in multiple senses?”
A 2015 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 21 percent of adults in the United States had visited a museum or a gallery in 2012, down from 26.5 percent a decade earlier. “That, I believe, should give pause to all of us in terms of thinking very very hard about the core nature of the experience that we’re providing,” Mr. Monroe said.
Art and neuroscience have long been used to illuminate each other. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the 19th-century doctor who is considered to have laid the groundwork for modern neuroscience, drew intricate pictures of the brain that are on view at a Minnesota museum.
Today, the nascent scientific field of neuroaesthetics explores how artistic and aesthetic experiences register in the brain. And there have been other collaborations between museums and neuroscientists, like the 2014 exhibition at London’s National Gallery “Making Colour,” which included an experiment on color perception with guidance from Anya Hurlbert, a visual neuroscientist.
There are also artists who take inspiration from the brain, and arts programs that have sought the guidance of neuroscientists like Mr. Conway, who has in turn looked to art to glean information about how the brain works. But, Mr. Conway said, P.E.M.’s efforts are unusual, because they are trying to gain insight from neuroscience about how to present art, and to tuck those findings under the hood of the museum.
“They’re trying to understand how is it that we as institutions can advance our mission by understanding something about how brains work,” Mr. Conway said. “That’s a bigger problem than, ‘I made a painting and I’m interested in knowing what part of your visual system was activated when you looked at the painting.’”
And the museum has found other ways to incorporate neuroscience into upcoming exhibitions, like a show of horror film posters collected by Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist of Metallica. Scheduled to open this summer, it will include a catalog essay by Joseph E. LeDoux, a neuroscientist who has a lab at New York University.
“My part was to talk about what fear is, how it relates to what happens in horror movies,” he said, adding that his field could well hold lessons for museums. “There are things that we know about the brain that help explain how we see the world, how we interact with the world as we move through it,” Mr. LeDoux said.
The museum’s efforts began informally, as Mr. Monroe took it upon himself to read some 150 books about how the brain works, including Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” and more academic tomes. Mr. Monroe was particularly interested in research on the power of unconscious decisionmaking and informationprocessing as people experience their surroundings.
“It seems pretty clear to us that most people experience art on the basis of unconscious filters, operators, values, past experiences and knowledge,” Mr. Monroe said. “Most people do not actually stop and look carefully and consciously think about what they’re seeing.”
So Mr. Monroe began to think about how his museum might design exhibitions to better engage visitors.
“We’ve been experimenting with asking questions,” Mr. Monroe said, as opposed to “didactic written labels,” which he said “don’t stimulate people to interrogate works of art on their own.”
Mr. Monroe is also interested in how to arrange viewing space to draw visitors’ attention through surprise.
“We create large galleries with large numbers of works of art,” Mr. Monroe said, but “our brains are designed to respond to change, diversity and motion.” So he is trying to create smaller rooms with fewer works of art — as the museum has done with its latest temporary exhibition, “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” which feels almost mazelike.
“That slows people down,” Mr. Monroe said, adding, “It also creates an enhanced sense of exploration and discovery, which is really important.”
It is an experiment that may draw art and science closer together, Ms. Wong of the Barr Foundation said. It’s about relevance, she said.
“Are we speaking to people today? How are we not isolating the arts?”