Art and Neuroscience

Thomas Boldt writes about Art and Neuroscience – Meet the PEMs newest member.

In the midst of an increasingly overflowing media landscape, museums and galleries around the world have been exploring new ways to entice visitors (and patrons) no matter which side of the divide they come from. Many people consider art and science to be polar opposites, yet one gallery is actively courting science to help shape and enhance the experience of its visitors.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Boston has taken the unusual step of hiring a staff neuroscientist to help them design their exhibit spaces and change the way people move through and engage with the entire museum. As part of the two year old Neuroscience Initiative, they’ve hired Dr. Tedi Asher to help oversee the program. Asher received her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program, and will be consulting with the current team to help expand their interdisciplinary approach to attention and engagement.

“What we want to create is a sense of exploration and discovery,” explained Dan Monroe, director and chief executive of the PEM, in an interview with the Boston Globe. “It’s to get people out of the mode of interacting with art on an unconscious level and beginning to think about what’s going on in the paintings.”

Of course, that’s an important goal for all museums and galleries, and the PEM’s Neuroscience Initiative has experimented with sensory-enrichment experiences for past exhibits designed to sharpen attention. The Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age exhibit began with jars of fragrant spices before visitors even saw any of the pieces, and a recent exhibit on the sculptor Rodin was complemented by dancers moving throughout the gallery space alongside visitors.

On some level this begs the question: how much ‘enrichment’ is helpful and inspiring, and how much changes the nature of the works on display? The idea of an exhibit being transformed into performance art is certainly appealing, but is it possible that these additions may begin to supercede the value of the original works? Only time will tell as the initiative continues, and Asher may have something to say on the matter.

Her role has yet to bear fruit on any exhibits as she was only appointed in May of this year, but the prospect is quite appealing to her. “I wanted to step away from bench science, from actually doing the research, in order to re-engage on a more personal level with that human experience and to find some way to apply my knowledge and skills in the realm of science to individuals’ experiences in the world,” said Asher, speaking to Newsweek magazine.

Interestingly enough, one of the artists that we looked at in a previous blog post, Anila Agha, recently had her exquisitely beautiful installation project Intersections on display in the Peabody Essex Museum, and she’s currently displaying All the Flowers Are for Me at the PEM until December 3rd, 2017. If you find yourself in Boston or nearby, be sure to stop by and check out this exciting piece – and see if you can spot the neuroscience-driven decisions throughout the rest of the museum!