How Neuroscience Tailored This Museum for Your Brain

Goodbye to overwhelming galleries.

Could neuroscience be the key to a more engaging museum experience? The director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, Dan L. Monroe, thinks so, as this New York Times article explains. Monroe has been using brain science principles to make his museum’s exhibits more visitor-friendly.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

A few years ago, Monroe asked neuroscientist Bevil Conway (then a professor at Wellesley College) to teach his museum staff neuroscience basics to help them understand why people seemed to be losing interest in the museum. The Peabody Essex Museum’s experience is part of a discouraging nationwide trend among art institutions — NYT points out this 2015 National Endowment for the Arts study which found 21 percent of U.S. adults went to a museum or gallery in 2012, “down from 26.5 percent a decade earlier.”

Conway told NYT that the idea to introduce neuroscience isn’t about how our brains respond to art, but about how to restructure the museum experience with a brain-friendly lens. The brain responds to “change, diversity and motion,” Monroe told NYT. But most traditional museums feature “large galleries with large numbers of works,” which can leave patrons feeling lost and unsure of where to look first, leading to lost interest. Monroe now tailors exhibitions with neuroscience in mind — introducing smell and sound to visual exhibitions, creating smaller exhibitions and having questions or quotes posted on the walls instead of only explanatory text.

Part of the process is about slowing visitors down — Monroe told NYT that smaller rooms with fewer objects helps and “also creates an enhanced sense of exploration and discovery.” He says that most people “experience art on the basis of unconscious filters, operators, values, past experiences and knowledge,” adding “most people did not actually stop and look carefully and consciously think about what they’re seeing.”

This is welcome news to anyone who’s ever walked into a museum only to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of art there is to see. After all, research shows that viewing art can lower our stress levels, so any measures that make it more accessible and enjoyable are beneficial for all of us.

Read the full story on NYT.