Groundbreaking initiative first in the museum world
By Shelley A. Sackett, correspondent
By his own admission, Dan Monroe is “afflicted with intense curiosity.” The Peabody Essex Museum executive director and CEO relaxes by intensely investigating fields unrelated to art and appreciation, such as quantum physics.
A few years ago, neuroscience caught his attention. After reading roughly 150 books and publications, it became clear to him that neuroscience has a direct role to play at PEM.
“What we essentially do is to create experiences of art and culture. We call them exhibitions and programs, but we are really creating experiences,” he said.
Since research shows that all experiences are created in our brains, he reasoned, if PEM wanted to remain at the forefront of designing meaningful, relevant and impactful art experiences, it would be a good idea to better understand how brains work.
Essentially, he thought that by getting inside visitors’ heads and figuring out how they felt, how they saw, what caught their attention and what they remembered, PEM could enrich their visits.
Plus, it would make the museum a more fun experience.
His team began experimenting with this new approach, adding innovative multi-sensorial elements to select exhibits. Professional dancers greeted visitors in the “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture” galleries, their movements and poses reflecting those of the sculptural works. “Asia in Amsterdam” showcased fragrant spices, a soundtrack conveying 17-th century Dutch life, storytelling and striking graphics.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“The dancers created a new kind of attention and a new avenue for people to appreciate and see sculpture,” he said, noting that the traditional way museums transmit information — through written labels — is not working. “If people read them at all, they spend an average of 2.5 seconds, even at the oversized introductory panels,” he said. He wanted a more transformative experience for the PEM guest and, based on visitor surveys, so did the public.
After the success of the Rodin and Asia shows, Monroe and his team decided to expand their reach. They applied for and received a $130,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization, to launch the neuroscience initiative and delve deeper into using neuroscience research to enhance the way PEM designs exhibits.
The initiative enabled PEM to hire Dr. Tedi Asher, a neuroscientist who earned her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program 2016, and joined PEM as its full-time Neuroscience Researcher in April. “To our knowledge, this is the first art museum in the world to hire a neuroscientist and put them on staff,” Monroe said.
Asher is thrilled with her first job outside the academic arena. “Where else but at art museums can one witness such breadth and depth of emotional experience?” she asked.
She was looking for a position that would allow her to creatively communicate neuroscience to non-scientists in a non-traditional teaching environment that would reach beyond academia and benefit the public at large.
“I came across PEM’s job ad and it seemed to fit that bill,” she said.
Asher’s primary academic focus has been studying emotion, starting as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, where she studied learning and memory in the common fruit fly. Her doctoral work in neuroscience investigated aggressive behavior in mice.
At PEM, she will step out of the laboratory and explore how PEM can enhance and enrich the visitor experience by designing exhibits that will evoke human emotions, thereby leaving lasting impressions.
“Teri has a keen interest in using neuroscience to make the world a better place. She’s learning a great deal about art and culture and how museums work at the same time she’s teaching us about neuroscience and how brains work,” Monroe said.
Asher’s tasks are threefold. She will investigate how human brains are wired to appreciate art and how that information can be used to design exhibits that resonate on a personal level. She will then work with PEM staff, teaching them basic concepts that are relevant to their work as exhibition and program designers, such as how visual and attention systems work and how they relate to emotion. Finally, she will also pen a small publication to explain the concept behind the neuroscience initiative and its applicability to museums.
The skills she honed during schooling — particularly her ability to “mine the literature in an efficient and effective way” — will be key to her position. Specifically, she will be looking at the structure of the visual system and how that influences visual perception, asking questions such as, “What neurostructures allow us to regulate attention? What characterizes how we allocate attention with an experience like a museum visit?”
It will be then be up to PEM exhibit designers and staff to translate and incorporate that information into the museum’s installations.
The timing of Asher’s hire couldn’t be more perfect. PEM continues to undergo a comprehensive renovation and expansion project, featuring a 40,000 square-foot new wing of galleries, which will open in 2019. At the same time, Monroe explained, PEM is also in the process of refreshing its permanent collections, creating new installations of virtually all of them.
“The entire experience at PEM will be new, based on ideas we’re deriving from neuroscience and other fields,” he said. Asher will assist in this overhaul too.
Since 2003, PEM has used The Morey Group to measure overall visitor satisfaction through a standardized survey tool used within the museum industry. Among the 80 museums tracked by Morey, PEM is head and shoulders above the rest, ranking number one every year since 2003.
“We’ve long been pursuing innovative approaches,” Monroe explained modestly, adding, “but the neuroscience initiative is a distinctive one.”
Monroe credits the neuroscience initiative with motivating PEM to shift gears away from written text and towards better and more storytelling. “Stories are the glue that holds us together as social animals. Good stories elicit emotion and emotion is really critical,” he said.