SALEM — 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?
To answer that question, the Peabody Essex Museum is taking what is being hailed as an unprecedented step in the museum world: hiring a neuroscientist to help apply the tenets of modern brain science to enhance the museum-going experience.
“What we want to create is a sense of exploration and discovery,” said Dan Monroe, the museum’s director and chief executive. “It’s to get people out of the mode of interacting with art on an unconscious level and beginning to think about what’s going on in the paintings.”
The intersection of brain science and the arts has been a topic of increasing interest in recent years. Many neuroscientists have written about how our brains perceive art, and in 2015 researchers at the University of Houston used headsets to monitor the brain activity of visitors to an exhibition at the Menil Collection. Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne presented an art exhibit last year partially inspired by brain lab experiments, and that’s to say nothing of numerous exhibitions around the country presenting art inspired by neuroscience.
“The ways one can manipulate context can influence how a piece of art is taken in on a neurological level,” said Tedi Asher, the new staff neuroscientist at the Peabody Essex Museum. “There’s evidence that if you stimulate multiple senses, you’re more likely to retain information and be able to process it.”
But what exactly will the new galleries look and feel like? That’s what this grand experiment will determine. Monroe said he hopes the results will serve as a model for museums nationally as they try to expand their audiences.
Asher’s initial one-year appointment is part of a broader strategy at the Peabody Essex, which over the next five years will completely redesign its galleries, incorporating neuroscience to devise multisensory exhibitions, unexpected gallery spaces, stories, and interactive features to heighten audience engagement.
As part of the neuroscience initiative, which is funded by a $130,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, Asher will meet periodically with an advisory group of brain scientists and work closely with museum staff as they plan exhibitions. She will also write a publication that summarizes the museum’s findings and serves as a guide for future programming.
With so many competing forms of entertainment these days, said Monroe, audience engagement is critical for museums. He cited a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts study that found steep declines in museum and gallery visits from 2002 to 2012.
“To compete successfully . . . art museums need to create much more stimulating, exciting, engaging, participatory kinds of experience,” Monroe said during a recent patron lecture.
The Salem museum has already made several forays into multisensory exhibitions, incorporating smells, dance, music, and creative lighting into some of its recent shows. Museum officials said audience feedback has been positive so far, which Asher said makes neuroscientific sense.
As a Harvard-educated scientist with no formal arts training, Asher admits she has a steep learning curve ahead. She’s still settling into her office, which at the moment is populated with piles of books and a few colorful printouts of neurons pasted to the wall.
“My background is in animal models, so I’m catching up on the human literature,” said Asher, whose graduate work involved serotonin-producing cells in rodents. “My undergraduate thesis was in flies.”
PEM deputy director Lynda Roscoe Hartigan said brain science is being integrated into the museum’s very DNA.
“We’re going to install museumwide,” she said. “This is going to have an impact not only in how we’re thinking about particular exhibitions, but also how we’re selecting topics for exhibitions. It’s going to seep into how we do programming.”
The element of surprise will be one factor integrated into installations, said Monroe, who for the past several years has been studying neuroscience on his own.
“It could be color, sound, or how you configure space,” he said. “If what happens next isn’t what you expect, your attention goes way up.”
Hartigan said that unlike a traditional gallery, which is “based on this notion that the art was going to speak for itself,” the new galleries will likely expand some of the museum’s earlier efforts to provide sensory-rich experiences.
Those have included redolent spices at the entrance to 2016’s “Asia in Amsterdam” show and dancers who moved through the galleries during the more recent “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture.”
“The fact that human bodies were doing interesting things really encouraged people to look at how the sculptor had interpreted the human body,” said Hartigan.
The museum also plans to explore how emotion (perhaps through use of music or light) can increase engagement, as well as providing plentiful rest areas where viewers can process what they’ve seen.
Asher compared these seating areas to rests in a piece of music.
“The brain is most active during rests within the music,” she said. “If that type of activity is representative of an engaged state, then we might want to think about what the parallels are in the visual system.”
The museum also intends to take a hard look at what Monroe called “didactic wall labels,” noting that the museum would experiment with labels to tell stories or ask questions.
“People on average spend 2½ seconds reading wall labels,” said Monroe. “What that really means is that people don’t read them.”
Nobel Prize recipient Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist, applauded the museum’s effort, saying it is breaking important new ground.
“I think this is the future,” said Kandel, an emeritus professor at Columbia University who’s written extensively on the relationship between neuroscience and the visual arts. “It would be extremely interesting if museums started working on how visitors engage with a work of art — not only for the museums, but for visitors.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.