The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has hired the world’s first full-time neuroscientist in an art museum. Tedi Asher, whose graduate research at Harvard Medical School focused on the neurobiology of aggression, will “develop ways to enhance the quality and impact of people’s experience of art”, says the museum’s director and chief executive, Dan Monroe. Her one-year post is funded by the Boston-based Barr Foundation.
The museum hopes the initiative will encourage a deeper kind of audience engagement. “Most people look at a work of art for five to eight seconds, and they may glance at the wall label for two-and-a-half seconds,” Monroe says. “We need to get people to slow down, to stop and really look at a work of art.”
Asher notes that a typical museum gallery may have two dozen paintings on the walls, overstimulating visitors’ brains with a barrage of visual information. “Neurons are all firing, but then certain neurons begin to suppress the activity of other neurons,” she says. The effect on the average viewer can be draining rather than energising.
Asher plans to collaborate with curators and designers at the museum to help visitors focus on fewer works at a time. One option may be to display selected works in a curtained space. “It’s not necessarily a matter of limiting the number of works in a gallery, but of presenting them in a way that lets one focus in a less distracted way,” she says.
Other methods include “eye-tracking” to pinpoint what visitors look at in a work, allowing the museum to better understand what information would be most helpful in a wall label. Asher is also considering an immersive, multi-sensory approach to contextualising the galleries, such as incorporating background music from the period that works were made and even scenting the galleries with spices from their countries of origin.
Drawing on the latest neuroscience research, Asher will summarise her recommendations in a publication that could “benefit the art museum community at large”, Monroe says.