How can neuroscience be used to improve your museum experience? The Peabody Essex Museum in Massachussets has gone so far as to hire a full-time neuroscientist, Tedi Asher, to help them revolutionise the way they present their art. Director of the museum Dan Monroe notes that museum culture is changing dramatically, with a significant decline in museum attendance and an increased emphasis on fun and entertainment as the priority for museumgoers. Because of this, Monroe realised the need for museums to evaluate their standard practices in order to stay relevant, and he struck upon the idea of incorporating neuroscience.

Carl Marci of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience breaks down engagement into three aspects: attention, emotion, and memory. Attention alone is not enough to produce a lasting impact; we all pay attention to things that we subsequently forget. He suggests that a significant emotional response is necessary to trigger a lasting memory. By priming museumgoers with a task before they view the exhibition, Tedi Asher hoped to elicit a stronger engagement with the art and to produce memories. This hypothesis was tested, with subjects divided into three groups and given different goals. Group one were just given a fact about the art; group two were asked to analyse the art to find a particular element; and group three were asked to make a personal judgment about the work. They were then interviewed to assess their engagement with the exhibition. Over the summer this data will be analysed; Asher hopes to establish whether the group given the personal reflection task displayed a greater emotional engagement.

The Peabody Essex Museum is in fact the second museum to directly incorporate neuroscience into its programme. In 2010, The Walters Art Museum collaborated with Johns Hopkins University to produce “Beauty and the Brain”, an exhibition-cum-experiment that asked museumgoers to analyse their reactions to abstract sculptures by 20th-century artist Jean Arp. Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the American Alliance of the Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums, comments: “in general, all of these interdisciplinary approaches are ways to provide new points of entry to diverse audiences”.

Applicants for both Psychology and Fine Art may wish to think about how studying the human mind can contribute to both the content and the presentation of art. 

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