PEM hires neuroscientist to enrich visitor experience

Tedi Asher

Dr. Tedi Asher

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.

Pleasure and Pain: Not All Shoes Are Meant for Walking

 

If, as Mark Twain said, “Clothes makes the man”, then the Peabody Essex Museum’s newest exhibit is full throttle support for a complementary adage: “Shoes make the woman”.

“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” showcases 300 pairs of shoes by more than 130 designers and artists that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the comfortable to the downright punishing. Although men’s shoes are represented with bling and panache, over 70% of the exhibit is devoted to women’s shoes.

With its recent acquisition of 20th– and 21st-century fashion, PEM has the largest shoe collection in the country. Over 100 are included in the exhibit, many of which have never been displayed before.

“We are in the process of building a fashion presence at PEM,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director and coordinating curator for the exhibition. “There is a growing appetite for compelling exhibitions about fashion.”

Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the PEM show marks its U.S. debut and will run through March 12, 2017.

Curated by themes, the five-section show (Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession) features shoes worn by high profile celebrities such as David Beckham, Elton John, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. Among the artists and designers represented are Manolo Blahnik (of “Sex and the City” notoriety), Christian Louboutin (with his signature red soles), Christian Dior, Jimmy Choo and Prada. Combat boots and sneakers share center stage with stilettos and seductive boudoir mules.

 

11rogervivierchristiandior

Beaded evening shoes by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior, 1958-1960.

 

It is the pairing of designer and consumer that is at the heart of the exhibit. “Shoes are about the personal creativity of the designer and the person who wears that shoe. It’s a partnership between two people who likely never meet. Creation is about communication,” Hartigan said.

The shoes on display aren’t just meant to protect feet and promote locomotion. They are also projections of the mood, identity and status of the wearer. “Shoes are extensions of ourselves,” she added.

Blahnik’s Mondrian-inspired red and yellow “Tendona” shoes would be conversation-stoppers at any gathering as would Louboutin’s impossibly high-heeled “Anemone” design, with its red satin bursts and feathers. The shoes seem molded to fit a Barbie doll’s nonhuman foot, and in fact, Barbie does have her very own accessory line of three Louboutin designs.

 

Manolo Blahnik , 'Tendona' shoe, 2015. Leather. Courtesy of Manolo Blahnik

“Tedona” by Manolo Blahnik, 2015, made of leather and on loan from the designer..

 

These shoes aren’t meant for the average consumer (even Barbie’s version retails for $35). With starting prices of $700, they are associated with more than female sexuality and power. “High heels have always been worn by rich people of high society,” said Hartigan, noting that the Egyptians first developed platform shoes in 3500 B.C. so the wealthy could be seen as walking high off the ground.

Historians looking for more than the dazzle of sequins and crystals (yes, there is even a Swarovski Cinderella glass slipper) can linger among the lotus shoes made for bound feet, 16th century chopines and men’s shoes with noisy slap-soles that were worn in Europe in the 17th century.

 

chopines

Chopines by an artist in Venice, Italy, about 1600 made of punched leather and pine.

 

Fashionistas will delight in the chance to see Vivienne Westwood’s dramatically exaggerated lace-up blue platform heels that famously caused model Naomi Campbell to stumble on a Paris runway in 1993. A picture of Campbell good-naturedly laughing after her very public tumble is part of the display.

 

campbell

The Vivienne Westwood blue, platform-heeled “Super Elevated Gillie” shoes that caused Naomi Campbell’s infamous 1993 Paris catwalk show tumble.

 

The exhibit also has a distinctive local flavor, acknowledging New England’s importance as a shoe manufacturing center and featuring selections from the late Boston style maven Marilyn Riseman and noted North Shore collectors Jimmy Raye and Lillian Montalto Bohlen.

Turning momentarily serious, the section “Seduction” shines a spotlight on the often-blurred lines between objectification and celebration of women’s sexuality. Inspired by bondage and 18th century prostitution, mules and high heels have always represented both passion and exploitation.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is “Fetish”, an unwearable pair of stilettos created by Louboutin in collaboration with film director David Lynch, whose signature style (“Blue Velvet”, “Twin Peaks”) is darkly twisted sensuality. The only way one can wear these shoes is by crawling. A picture of a woman doing just that is part of the exhibit.

 

fetish

“Fetish” by Louboutin in collaboration with David Lynch.

 

Walking through the galleries, it’s evident that while the lion’s share of shoes is designed for women, the designers are predominantly men. Although high heels may empower and literally elevate women, they can do so at a cost of permanent back and foot problems.

Asked whether he has sympathy for women who wear his designer high heels, Louboutin was unambiguous in a 2012 interview with “Grazia” magazine. “High heels are pleasure with pain. If you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them,” he scoffed.

Or, as a shoe designer in ancient Roman times (when high heels were popular with both men and women) might have put it, “caveat emptor”.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs through March 12, 2017 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit pem.org.