Peabody Essex Museum employs neuroscientist to enhance visitor experience

By Adrian Murphy

In a ground-breaking initiative the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts has what it thinks is the first ever full-time neuroscientist at an art museum

There are many ways museums are attempting to understand their visitors but PEM’s neuroscience initiative is taking this field of discovery to a new level. Marking a possible first for art museums, PEM is to hire a full-time neuroscientist as well as work with three consulting neuroscientists to synthesise research and publish comprehensive recommendations for the museum field at large.

The project is an extension of the museum’s experience design strategy which in recent years has introduced innovative visitor engagement strategies into its exhibitions. It has been realised through a grant from Boston’s Barr Foundation that will allow PEM to assess how emerging neuroscience research can enhance the museum experience.

Over the course of a year, the museum will work with a team of neuroscientists to gain deeper insight into emerging brain science findings – including the nature of perception, information processing and attention systems — in order to create new interpretative and design strategies that foster indelible, transformational museum experiences.

“Applying neuroscience research to museum experience design is an entirely new and tremendously exciting strategy, one that has already produced positive outcomes and new kinds of guidance for the presentation and interpretation of art and museum education,” said Dan Monroe, PEM’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO and former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. “We are deeply appreciative of the Barr Foundation’s support which furthers our mission to create encounters with art, culture and creative expression that transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world.”

In last year’s Rodin exhibition, professional dancers were integrated into the galleries to draw visitor attention to human form, posture and movement. Elsewhere, PEM’s Asia in Amsterdam exhibition introduced unexpected multi-sensory and interactive experiences, emphasized emotive storytelling and integrated Attention Systems logic into the design and layout. The Barr Foundation grant will allow the museum to significantly enhance its experience design programme in unprecedented, new ways.

“PEM has always embraced work that sparks curiosity about the world and diverse cultures,” said San San Wong, Senior Program Officer for Arts and Creativity at the Barr Foundation. “At a time when it is more critical than ever to invest in curiosity and mutual understanding, Barr is pleased to support PEM’s bold, rigorous exploration of how to put people at the center of that work, and to transform the museum experience.”