Studying the brain to create compelling museum experiences

Studying the brain to create compelling museum experiences

March 31, 2017 by Andrea Goulet
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Museum traditionally are mostly dedicated to one sense: the sight. Even though there are concert halls and auditoriums within museums, and even though technology has allowed the integration of sound and smell into both art and scenography, no museum has been using and studying the effects of appealing to all five senses to create compelling experiences on the regular basis.

But a couple of weeks ago, the Peabody Essex Museum received a grant  from the Barr Foundation for a very special mission: bring a neuroscience researcher on staff and add three neuroscientists to the museum as advisers. Those staff additions will allow the museum to study and understand how visitors’ brains reacts to art, how emotions are triggered and how they can make the most of it to engage their audiences with art. The idea of including neuroscience in the museum’s work is not new for the museum’s director Dan L. Monroe, who asked neuroscientist Bevil Conway to deliver a speech about neuroaestethics to the museum’s staff a few years ago. Ever since, he has been trying to put neuroscience findings to a good use by making museum more impactful as museum attendance is falling in the USA.

And while having a neuroscientist on staff to understand how the brain reacts to art and to use it to rethink the museum space is quite new, it does make sense: What are museums about if not about creating emotions, triggering emotions, leaving a mark in people’s lives?

The Peabody Essex Museum already did some changes in their exhibition spaces: smaller rooms with fewer works of art and asking questions instead of didactic labels are ways that engage people and activates the brain by giving visitors “an enhanced sense of exploration and discovery”, as Mr. Monroe said. Those best practices with probably many others will later on be published in a guide to be shared with all the museums.

If you are looking for best practices on how to use the power of the brain to engage audiences, there already is at least one book on the subject, entitled Hack the Experience: Tools for Artists from Cognitive Science. It is meant for artists but not only, taking a global approach of how to engage audiences in an artistic experience through senses, emotions, disorientation, socially-engaged practices…

These level and scale of blending art and science are unique, but the idea of studying the brain’s reactions in museums can easily be traced back to earlier experiences, even including responses of the brain… and the body to works of art depicting actions, like details of the Sistine Chapel and Degas’ ballerinas.

Experimenting with neurosciences and senses has also proven successful at several exhibitions, including the second edition of the IK Prize at Tate, when the Tate Sensorium immersive experience gave the visitors’ brains multi sensorial impulses in front of 4 chosen artworks from the Tate collections. And if you want to experience with your own brain right now, the Museum of New and Old Art in Tasmania explores with Brian Boyd the way cognitive signals have shaped art and helped us survive since the beginning of time in an exhibition that uses all kinds of patterns to engage with its audience.