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Talking Museums and Neuroscience with Tedi Asher

Tedi Asher made headlines earlier this year when she took the role of Neuroscientist in residence at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salam, Massachusetts. This is believed to be a first in the museum world. We caught up with her about this exciting new field of work.

Peabody Essex museum is the first to employ a neuroscientist

What’s a neuroscientist doing in an art museum?
The goal of the Neuroscience Initiative at PEM is to enhance visitor engagement. Toward that end, we draw on findings from the neuroscience literature to inform our design strategies for creating art experiences. As all experience is a product of brain function, we hypothesize that learning more about how the brain works will allow us to generate more engaging experiences of art and culture in PEM’s galleries.

Some of the questions that drive our research concern how visual attention is allocated in a museum setting; how environmental cues and context impact our behavior, affect, and even physiology; and the role that emotion plays in guiding attention and forming memories. By considering data that address these questions, we hope to better understand, and enhance the quality of, the visitor experience.

What’s a typical day look like for a museum neuroscientist?
Most of my time is spent delving into the neuroscience literature and meeting with colleagues – curators, interpreters, designers – to strategize how we can apply the neuroscience findings in a gallery setting. We generate hypotheses about what the data might mean for visitors in an art museum, and devise ways to apply the relevant findings so that these hypotheses can be tested.

Neuroscience tests in the museum

What will be the final outcome of your research?
Key findings from PEM’s neuroscience initiative will be explored in the museum’s changing exhibition and collection galleries. Additionally, PEM will create and distribute a publication detailing the lessons learned from its endeavors in the field of neuroscience.

In March you’re presenting at MuseumNext Australia, what do you expect to share with us?
During my upcoming presentation at MuseumNext Australia, I will delineate the origins of, goals for, and approach to implementing the Neuroscience Initiative at PEM.

I will further share data that we have deemed relevant to the design of art experiences and will demonstrate how we use such data to generate hypotheses about the dynamics of the visitor experience, which may be modified using a range of interpretation and design elements within specific exhibitions.

Finally, I will touch upon our efforts in the realm of evaluation, which will help us to test our hypotheses and perhaps enhance our understanding of neural function at large.

Photo’s Courtesy Peabody-Essex Museum

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