Installation view of XYZT: A Journey in 4 Dimensions exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum (all photographs of this exhibition courtesy of Adrien M. & Claire B. ©RomainEtienne)

SALEM, Mass. — The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has been looking in some very non-traditional places for solutions to the problem that many art museums have grappled with over the past ten years or so: declining attendance.  The problem has most typically been attributed to a greying of museum membership, and been addressed by creating events aimed at bringing in new audiences. Museums now turn to beefing up marketing, education, and community engagement efforts, often with the intention of making demographic shifts in audience makeup.

And perhaps this turn is working among certain institutions. The Association of Art Museum Directors2016 data (covering 212 of its member art museums in North America) reports that though membership has gone down, their total attendance has been on a steady rise since 2014 — increasing by over three quarters of a million visitors between 2015 and 2017.

But PEM is looking a little more inward in its efforts to build its audience — at its own exhibition design practices, and then, even further inward, at human cognition.

Portrait of Dr. Tedi Asher (photo by Bob Packert and courtesy PEM)

In early 2017, with funding from Boston’s Barr Foundation, they posted an ad seeking a “neuroscience researcher” to support a “neuroscience advisory board” with the goal of integrating “cutting edge neuroscience” into “art and exhibition design.” By May they’d hired neuroscientist Dr. Vidette (Tedi) Asher. Asher has no previous experience thinking about art professionally — at that point her work in her field was limited to a post-doctoral fellowship conducting brain studies on mice and flies at Harvard Medical School’s Dymecki genetics lab. But she was looking for a role that would allow her to communicate about science to a non-scientific audience, and found exactly such a role at PEM. Here, her job is to immerse herself in neuroscience literature about the human brain and its sensory systems, information on methods used by museum exhibition teams, and the physical space of the museum itself and then begin to imagine how those three things can be synergistically intertwined.

This project is almost the inverse of the last significant way that neuroscience entered the US art world. In 2016, musician David Byrne’s ““NEUROSOCIETY” project at Pace Gallery in Los Angeles used artistic methods (immersive interactive installations) to translate what 15 cognitive neuroscience labs were studying into non-scientific terms for gallery visitors. In that case, neuroscience drove the art. At the Peabody Essex Museum, the neuroscience will support the art — or at least its interpretation and reception.

Installation view of visitors at the XYZT: A Journey in 4 Dimensions exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum

But how? Our ideas about how neuroscience works and may be applied are nebulous. The first ideas that come to my mind when imagining it being used to enhance artwork are along the lines of augmented reality. I basically imagine extra dimensions of meaning — scent or other sensory stimulation for example — overlaid on existing museum experiences. Is this realistic?

In fact, Dr. Asher doesn’t quite know what applying neuroscience in a museum context will look like yet either. By telephone, about five months into her ten-month appointment, Asher explains that she’s still researching, so though some strategies are beginning to come together, they “haven’t crystallized yet.” Her reading has been focused primarily on understanding “how attention is allocated in a context like a museum” and identifying what can and can’t be addressed by infusing neuroscience understandings about how the brain responds to stimuli into the exhibition design process.

Installation view of XYZT: A Journey in 4 Dimensions exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum

She explains that “saliency” — the degree to which the subject of an artwork stands out from its background — is an important cognitive value that a museum might be able to take into account in presenting work to its visitors. Asher describes the results of a recent study that highlights, for example, the problem of how to simultaneously present art to viewers with varying degrees of formal education.

They showed these participants abstract paintings and were able to track their eye movements, so they were able to see which part of the paintings each group tended to focus on the most, and what they found is that the art novices tended to be very attracted to or spent a lot of their time looking at those elements in the painting that were the most salient, which stood out the most from the background. Whereas the art experts tended not to focus much on these salient moments, so the interpretation was then that these art experts were more influenced by “top-down” influences — their own associations or some larger theme in the painting that wasn’t just the physical or visual salience.

This data doesn’t tell us what’s happening in the brain, but Asher explains, “it’s a reflection of how the same information is processed differently by those who have more or less education with respect to art.”

Figure 1 from a published study investigating responses by museum visitors to stimuli via electroencephalography (EEG) (© 2017 Cruz-Garza, Brantley, Nakagome, Kontson, Megjhani, Robleto and Contreras-Vidal; Front. Hum. Neurosci., 10 November 2017)

A similar class of knowledge was obtained during a 2014, three-month, wearable electroencephalography (EEG) study of museum visitors viewing works by Dario Robleto at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. The study was able to demonstrate that there are distinct types of brain activity happening when people view art, as well as showing that the nature of this activity follows different patterns depending on the demographic group (for example, age and gender). However, this kind of general knowledge is just about the limit of what can currently be said about the neuroscience of art reception.

But Asher is undaunted. In her thinking, the “top-down” (versus “bottom-up”) influences — which account for the biggest differences in information processing — need to be set aside in order to refine the scope of what neuroscience can offer to exhibition design.

The “bottom up influences” are going to be much more conserved across the population. Irrespective of culture or heritage, we all have the same visual system or auditory circuits. So the way that we process those types of sensory information is going to be basically be the same. But the top-down influences are going to be totally idiosyncratic — much more susceptible to cultural differences, and much harder to access. So the mood that someone is in when they walk into a museum is something that we have very little control over, whereas what they hear when they walk in the door or how they’re greeted, that we have control over. Right now, it’s about recognizing where we can intercept the visitor and making the best of that.

The focus at the moment is on accessing the cognitive processing done by an “average visitor,” but Asher also sees neuroscience as likely able to help in finding ways to pull those with impairments, or otherwise non-standard cognitive processes, deeper into the museum experience as well.

Ultimately, Asher’s research conclusions will become a toolkit in service of the curatorial department.. “So,” she explains,

it’s all about the interpretive strategies that we happen to be taking for any given exhibition. If it’s to enhance the intensity of the experience, I think you can use it for that. And, if an artwork is so evocative in and of itself and you need to tamper it down a bit, you could use a neuroscience-based approach to do that.

Installation view of XYZT: A Journey in 4 Dimensions exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum

She sees her work as positioned on the mechanical side of the interpretive process. In other words, rather than suggesting the addition of a scent or a soundscape to an exhibition to make it more engaging, she’ll be helping to identify where and when it would be best to interject more or less information. For example, Asher feels she can meaningfully improve experiential outcomes by advising about pacing and use of space.

There are a couple of exhibitions that we’re working on — I won’t go into details, because they’re still in the works — but we’ve had discussions around, for example, an entryway experience. How do you structure that so that the visitors’ eye goes where you want it to go first? How do you balance the salient elements within that scene with the use of color, relative to the art objects?

She’s also able to inform the museum about the impact of a psychological concept called “switch cost,” meaning it takes more energy to perform a task if you’ve just been performing a different one previously.

We’re working on an exhibition that incorporates a number of different types of art. So within the same exhibition you’re going to be reading poems, looking at paintings, and hearing music. Those are three different types of tasks that you’re going to have to be engaged in, and so we had a discussion about how much choice visitors have in that exhibition about where to go next — about their wayfinding — and based on this literature about switch cost, I commented that, given that you’re already asking the visitor to do so many different kinds of work, you probably don’t want to also burden them with the question of “where do I go?” So this is very nuanced, but it should give you an idea of how we’re talking about this data in the context of exhibitions.

Installation view of XYZT: A Journey in 4 Dimensions exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum

Though she is unable to predict in much detail how neuroscience will inform the practices of exhibition design and art curation in the future, Asher is excited for the possibilities raised by making even small, scientifically based adjustments.

The more we can understand about ourselves and why we react to things as we do, the richer our experiences are going to be. So just having interest in the mechanics behind our experience can be a fruitful line of questioning.

Fruitful certainly from a philosophical perspective — and possibly for artists as much as for museums — if exhibitions become more attuned to the ways attention is spent on each specific artwork.

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Heather Kapplow

Heather Kapplow is a Boston-based conceptual artist. Her work involves exchanges with strangers, wielding talismans, alternative interpretations of existing environments, installation, performance, writing,...