Neurobiologist Hired at Art Museum

May 15, 2017

Scientists are constantly learning more about how our brains process information, including how we perceive art.

Now, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem is breaking new ground by hiring a neurobiologist to help them enhance their exhibits.

The Harvard-trained neurobiologist, Tedi Asher, says the museum has already tried out many experimental changes that make sense to her, such as incorporating dance, music, special lighting and even smells to the exhibits.

“Let’s take the multisensory experience as an example,” she said. “The data and the literature support the idea that interacting with something with multiple senses helps you to retain information, to learn the information better.”

Research shows the visual and auditory inputs should be communicating the same messages, not conflicting messages, to learn something new, Asher said. During her initial one-year appointment, Asher will be using her knowledge of neurobiology and doing research to help the museum reach more people.

Competition for audience attention is fierce in the digital age, says museum director and CEO Dan Monroe.

As a society, “we’re producing prodigious amounts of information,” he said. “About 2.5 exabytes a day, which would be 250,000 Libraries of Congress.”

Museums across the country have seen steep declines in visitors between 2002 and 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. (The Peabody Essex Museum’s visitor numbers have actually risen in that time.)

“The idea that the core, traditional gallery experience is great and is perfect the way it is, is undermined, unfortunately, by those attendance statistics,” Monroe said.

Monroe says art museums need to be providing experiences that are interactive rather than passive.

“'Engaging' in the sense of helping stimulate individual attention, exploration, and discovery,” he said.