Brain matters

Museums excel at providing stimulating visual, intellectual and emotional experiences. But do we really know what’s going on inside the visitor’s mind? If we did, could we design even more effective and impactful museum experiences?


“What’s going on inside the visitor’s mind?” Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker at PEM. Photo credit Allison White.

These are the questions driving PEM’s groundbreaking neuroscience initiative.

Thanks to a $130,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization, PEM will work with a team of neuroscientists to gain deeper insight into emerging brain science findings to enhance interpretative and design strategies.

Marking a first for an art museum, this initiative enables PEM to hire a full-time neuroscience researcher as well as work with three consulting neuroscientists to synthesize research and publish recommendations for the museum field at large.


Visitors engaged with materials in a recent exhibtion. Photo credit Allison White.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, PEM’s executive director and CEO Dan Monroe reflected,

“It seems pretty clear to us that most people experience art on the basis of unconscious filters, operators, values, past experiences and knowledge… [but] most do not  actually stop and look carefully and consciously think about what they’re seeing.”

The new initiative will address the core nature of perception and learning, closing the gap between what visitors experience in a museum and what the corresponding neurological response is, or could be.

PEM’s engagement with neuroscience extends back several years, beginning with a neuroscience lecture for museum staff led by Wellesley College professor Bevil Conway. Since then, the museum has begun to incorporate brain science principles into exhibition design and interpretation.


Videos of Amsterdam invite visitors to immerse themselves within Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age. Photo credit Allison White.


Visitors experiencing the Asia in Amsterdam exhibition. Photo credit Allison White.

Last year multi-sensory elements were integrated into the Asia in Amsterdam exhibition – fragrant spices and sounds of a 17th-century city life wafted in the foyer, tactile stations were created elsewhere to explore the difference between earthenware and porcelain – and in the Rodin: Transforming Sculpture galleries professional dancers encouraged visitor engagement. More recently, our Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition featured smaller zones to focus the mind, slow visitors down and enhance the sense of exploration and discovery in the galleries.


BoSoma dancers moving within the Rodin exhibition. Photo credit Allison White.


Visitors experiencing the sculptures of Auguste Rodin. Photo credit Allison White.

This summer’s exhibition “It’s Alive!” Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection provides the perfect platform to more deeply understand our complicated relationship to fear. Be sure to pick up a copy of the exhibition catalog, which will feature a thought-provoking essay on the topic by New York University neuroscience professor Joseph LeDoux.


From left: Peabody Essex Museum director Dan Monroe, deputy director Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, and neuroscientist Tedi Asher. Photo by Keith Bedford of the Boston Globe. 

“For decades, museums have sought a minimalist approach when it comes to their galleries, hanging art on clean white walls so viewers can focus intently on the work before them. But what if they’ve been doing it all wrong?” – The Boston Globe

Read more about PEM’s “unprecedented step” in hiring neuroscientist, Tedi Asher, to help apply brain science to enhance the museum experience in today’s front page Boston Globe article.

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One Comment

  1. Shelby S. Hicks, MFA, NCIDQ,ASID says:

    I am so excited for this! I would love to get involved at any level. I am an educator, interior designer and believe the built environment can effect learning and understanding. My dissertation: “Inspiring the Educational Journey through the Built Environment. Supporting the Theory of Multiple Intelligence’s. Research about the ways in which interior design plays an important role in the educational environment by creating a sense of well-being, challenging the expected, and supporting the idea that learning is a journey of exploration and discovery.

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