Tag Archives: exhibitions

Art Museum Hires Neuroscientist. Repost

This Art Museum Hired a Neuroscientist to Change the Way We Look at Art

  • Anila Quayyum Agha, All the Flowers Are for Me, 2017. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum.

From the late 16th to the early 20th century, the salon-style hang was the predominant display convention across Europe. But hanging paintings like this—crammed cheek to jowl in a gallery space—has since fallen out of favor, in part because it tends to prevent viewers from concentrating on a single work.

But why, exactly? The reason may have something to do with the circuitry of the human brain—which is why at least one museum is branching out and recruiting a neuroscientist to join its team.  “On a behavioral level, it can be distracting to walk into a room and have tons of things to look at,” said Dr. Tedi Asher, who earlier this year joined the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, for a one-year appointment as Neuroscience Researcher. “At the level of neurological activation, each painting will be presented less strongly.”

I met with Asher at her office, where the walls are decorated with brain-themed cartoons and diagrams, including a jumbo-sized image of Purkinje cells in a mouse cerebellum. To corroborate her claim, Asher invoked the theory of sensory suppression, which holds that a barrage of sensory stimuli—such as the salon-style hang—deadens the optical-neurological apparatus of the viewer.

She illustrated the point by pointing to her smartphone and a plastic pen. “If you have multiple objects in the same view, you’re going to have some neurons that respond to the phone and other neurons that respond to the pen,” she said. “It’s been shown that the neurons that respond to one are going to actively suppress the neurons that respond to the other. The representation of the objects in the brain seems to be weakened by having multiple objects.”

The appointment of Asher is part of a broader campaign by Dan Monroe, the museum’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, to deploy neuroscience in the service of exhibition design.

Under his leadership, this mid-sized museum north of Boston, which is best known for its extensive holdings in Asian and maritime art, has already gained national attention for convention-busting exhibitions. At the entrance to “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age,” visitors were greeted by cylinders of spices—cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns—that promoted more lasting memories by engaging multiple senses. For “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture,” a troupe of live dancers confounded viewer’s expectations of the white cube.

Hiring Asher in May was the next step in pushing forward the Peabody’s mission. Over the next year, she’ll meet regularly with an advisory panel of neuroscientists, and will ultimately produce a publication that crystallizes her findings.

“Anecdotally, we’re all familiar with the idea that a satisfying experience has this delicate balance of meeting and violating our expectations,” Asher said. “In the context of exhibition design, how can we surprise people in a way that won’t be jarring but will help viewers make sense of what they have seen? Something that is unexpected takes longer to detect—but it also makes a more lasting imprint.” At the Peabody Essex, Asher will apply the principles of neuroaesthetics—the synthesis of neuroscience and aesthetics—to a reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection that will unfold over the next five years. Since arriving at the museum, she has been an advocate for the gallery-goer’s brain, making the case for display conventions that sidestep outmoded curatorial strategies (overloaded walls, indigestible wall text).

How the White Cube Came to Dominate the Art World

One idea that she is developing are rest areas, or “palate cleansers,” that will allow visitors a respite from sensory stimulation, much like the intermission in a play.

The implicit aim of the museum’s neuroscience initiative, made possible by a $130,000 grant from the Boston-based Barr Foundation, is to boost the institution’s relevance at a time of declining attendance across the museum landscape. A 2015 study by the National Endowment for the Arts presented a startling number: Only 21 percent of adults in the United States visited a museum or gallery in 2012, a drop of 5.5 percent from 2002. While the Peabody Essex Museum has defied this trend—over the same period, attendance at the museum has risen steadily—it is nonetheless attuned to the plight of the museum sector as a whole.

“The loss of attendance leaves one to ask, ‘What are the dynamics that are causing this?’” said Monroe. “The strategies and practices that we, as a field, continue to employ are not very effective and, in my view, never will be—they do not recognize the way that people’s brains works.

“That said, we have to all recognize that neuroscience is in its infancy. Nobody understands, for example, how consciousness is created or even what it is.…Ultimately, the deciding factor will be whether or not we’re able to demonstrate that, by better understanding some key elements of the way our brains work, we can create experiences that more people find meaningful and impactful.”

  • Bosoma Dance Company perform in “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture’ at the Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Swong95765, via Flickr.

  • Bosoma Dance Company perform in “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture’ at the Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Swong95765, via Flickr.

Asher arrived at the Peabody Essex Museum almost by happenstance, dashing off a cover letter to the museum when an advertisement for the position was circulated on an internal listserv. Raised in Washington, D.C., she remembers “falling over” after seeing Claude Monet’s haystacks at the Art Institute of Chicago but ultimately dedicated herself to the sciences, receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology from Swarthmore College and later a Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program, where she investigated the linkage between aggression in male mice and serotonin-producing neurons. Her role at the Peabody Essex Museum is that of a benign disruptor, evaluating the format of forthcoming exhibitions in the context of neural pathways. “People seem to appreciate that I’m a little bit of an outsider,” she said.

Having a scientist on staff might be a new development, but the machinery of vision—and the relationship between sensation and perception—has vexed art lovers for millennia. In Art and Illusion (1960), Ernst Gombrich tells of a Pythagorean sage who, upon considering the case of a cloud that resembles a centaur or stag antelope, surmised that perception is a creative act on the part of the beholder. Or, as Gombrich put it: “What we read into these accidental shapes depends on our capacity to recognize in them things or images we find stored in our minds.” Thus, an image is not an index of the material world but a function of the brain.

“The beholder’s share, as it’s known, is a classic problem in art history,” Eric Kandel told me. He’s a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist at Columbia University and author of Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures (2016). “What’s going on in the beholder’s head when he looks at a work of art? This is an ongoing area of research. It’s still in its early stages but potentially quite interesting and, I think, quite important.”

In recent years, Kandel has emerged as an evangelist for interdisciplinary inquiry, taking it upon himself to mend the schism between art and science “by focusing on a common point at which the two cultures can meet and influence each other,” as he writes at the beginning of his book. Nevertheless, some art historians are skeptical of neuroaesthetics, which may at times slip into “a spurious reduction of art to the science of the brain,” as Jonathan Gilmore, currently an Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Baruch College, wrote in 2006.

  • Portrait of Tedi Asher. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum.

  • Anila Quayyum Agha, All the Flowers Are for Me, 2017. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum.

“Some art historians are enthusiastic [about neuroaesthetics], and others think it’s ridiculous,” said Kandel. “They say, ‘What does it have to offer? It demeans art to think that it has a biological explanation.’ But they should not worry: Neuroscience is not going to replace an art-historical approach to art; it’s going to supplement and enrich it.

“This is a very interesting experiment on the part of [the Peabody Essex Museum],” Kandel continued. “One of the things that strikes me with many current exhibitions is that they’re too damn large! It’s absolutely exhausting to go through them.”

For her part, Asher is sensitive to the fact that her appointment is a landmark event—but she’s also eager to focus on the business at hand. The challenge before her is to apply lessons from carefully designed experiments in a laboratory setting to the business of running an art museum with more than 300 personnel and an operating budget of $30 million. “The way [my colleagues here] talk about things feels much less structured than in the science world, where it is much more about connecting the dots,” she said. “I feel like there is more fluidity to how things are approached in a museum.”

After our interview, we entered the museum to see Anila Quayyum Agha’s All the Flowers Are for Me, an immersive installation in which the white cube has been converted into a light chamber, with a foliate pattern projected on the floor, walls, and ceiling. Encased in a lemon-colored aureole, Asher expounded on the neurological processes at work in our experience of the installation—and the sensation of being caressed by light.

“Your experience of this installation depends on what it reminds you of,” she said. “When you recall a memory, the regions of your cortex that process different senses become activated. So, if you’re looking at an image of a fur coat, you might feel as though you can touch the fur, and that’s because that part of your brain that would process the tactile experience is becoming activated by the memory.”

“But, of course,” she added, “it’s all in your mind.”

—Christopher Snow Hopkins

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-art-museum-hired-neuroscientist-change-way-art

Call for papers on Inclusive Experiences in Exhibition Design. Deadline: April 13, 2015

The journal Exhibitionist invites proposals for its spring 2015 issue, Creating an Inclusive Experience: Exhibitions & Universal Design.
Proposals of 250 words maximum are due by April 13, 2015.

You can find the Call for Papers at: http://name-aam.org/about/news

Call for Papers Fall 2015 Exhibitionist

DATELINE: February 20, 2015

Download this document

Creating an Inclusive Experience: Exhibitions and Universal Design

Proposals due April 13, 2015

In 2015, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the American With Disabilities Act (ADA). To mark this milestone,Exhibitionist takes on the topic of “Universal Design.” While Universal Design evolved from Accessible Design—and uses accessibility as a starting point—it goes further. It recognizes that human abilities are wide-ranging, and that all of us, if we live out a typical lifespan, will experience some sort of functional limitation. For those involved with exhibitions, this means creating environments that are usable by everyone with the least amount of adaptation. It calls for creative and imaginative ways to engage the widest possible group of users.

For this issue, we seek proposals that focus on exhibitions as a whole—or on elements within an exhibition (such as media, technology, multisensory elements, label-writing, etc.)—that incorporate the principles of Universal Design.* The exhibitions (or installations) can be of any size, and take place in any of a variety of spaces: museums of all disciplines, historical sites, institutions that collect and display living collections, or other environments.

Proposals can also focus on broader institutional strategies for including Universal Design in exhibition making, or on teaching Universal Design to those who create exhibitions. Proposals might come from designers, curators, developers, writers, architects, educators, collection managers, or others who create and contribute to exhibitions. As much as possible, if a case study, research project, or student experience is submitted, the article should not focus on a single project or institution without raising questions or throwing light on larger issues that are widely applicable.

Submissions from colleagues and students around the world are welcome and encouraged.

Deadlines

Proposal due: April 13, 2015. 250 words maximum. Briefly describe your article; how it relates to the issue theme; and your background/qualifications for writing the article. Proposals will be vetted by our editorial advisory board, and you will be notified of acceptance or non-acceptance.

First draft due: June 12, 2015. 2,000 words maximum (approximately four single-spaced pages) with four to five high-resolution images, captions, and credits. Your article will be returned to you with comments and edits by theExhibitionist editorial advisors and editor.

Final article due: August 11, 2015

Please send all submissions via email to:
Ellen Snyder-Grenier (esnydergrenier at yahoo.com)
Editor, Exhibitionist, the journal of the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME)

Repost: How to Keep Museum-goers Happy

This is an interesting article on how big museums have found out that a museum visit is not only about the art, but also about the “experience”…

 

How to Keep Museum-goers Happy

By Posted 03/27/12

As visitors crowd into blockbusters at rates of more than 800 people per hour, museums are working behind the scenes to keep guests patient, informed, and calm.

Long lines. Jostling crowds. Mini-stampedes to get a look at the “good stuff.” A trip to a major museum exhibition these days can feel more like a Black Friday sale at Walmart than a rewarding adventure in esthetic uplift. So much so that a Gauguin retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, in 2010–11, elicited a slew of complaints on the museum’s Internet message board. “A good exhibition sadly marred by the gross overcrowding,” read a typical response. “I shuffled along with so many others struggling to see past the backs of so many heads.” The reactions of angry visitors led one art critic to dub the phenomenon “gallery rage,” and if that’s not quite as catchy as “road rage,” it may be endemic to our times.

But there is good news, and it’s twofold: attendance numbers at major exhibitions reveal no sign of flagging (even in a poor economy and even with higher entry fees) and museums are increasingly sensitive to visitors’ needs. Indeed, many devote serious time and personnel to forestalling meltdowns in their halls of culture.

A case in point is the recent Alexander McQueen retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which broke attendance records for a fashion exhibition at the institution. Visitors lined up for as long as five hours, but nearly all showed “remarkable patience and perseverance,” says Harold Holzer, senior vice president for external affairs at the Met. The museum’s visitor-services department, he adds, “staffed up as never before for McQueen,” and during the opening weeks, they kept a close eye on how many people could navigate the galleries and for how long. “We worked at the beginning of the show to create a flow that would accommodate visitors, protect the art, keep the climate control at ideal levels, and maximize the experience,” he says. “We learned that about 426 visitors per half hour would work best.” In the end, McQueen garnered a total of 661,509 visitors.

If that sounds like a lot, consider that the ongoing spectacular “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs,” now traveling the globe, still draws about a million people per city and averages 600 viewers per hour. “We put in a great deal of thought beforehand to managing that gallery capacity and managing expectations,” says Mark Lach, senior vice president of Arts & Exhibitions International, the chief organizer behind the King Tut show. When people are paying top dollar—between $28 and $32 admission to see Tut’s treasures—expectations can run unusually high. “You’ve got a certain segment of guests who want it to be that perfect experience,” he adds, “so if parking isn’t right, if the directions to the exhibition are confusing, you end up with a number who are frustrated before they even walk into the show.”

Timed ticketing, with entry slotted at fixed intervals, can help forestall frayed tempers. Simon Blint, head of visitor services at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, says he was spurred to introduce timed ticketing after receiving a serious tongue lashing from a man who had stood on line for an hour and a half waiting to see “Picasso and American Art,” in 2007. “The guy was incredibly frustrated,” Blint says, “and if I recall correctly, he was there with his children. He told me I was an idiot for not doing timed ticketing. And he was right.”

Making it clear up front how much of a schlep museum- goers are in for is helpful. “Don’t keep people in the dark,” Lach says. “Let them know that there are 12 galleries in the exhibition, that they can linger as long as they like, and that there’s a time they can count on for entry.” Any advance information may keep tantrums in check. Lach remembers his own visit to the McQueen show last summer: “As soon as I got on line, there was a little sign on a post that said, ‘From this point on, it’s about a 90-minute wait.’ And there were guest-services personnel handing out pamphlets on the exhibition and doing their best to answer questions.”

Sometimes the personal touch can help sweeten the wait. “A few times, my marketing colleagues got Argo Tea, a local chain, to donate hot beverages to those waiting in line for shows,” says Chai Lee, associate director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago. “At one of our events, our previous director, Jim Cuno, even helped pass out tea and greeted visitors who queued up to get into the museum.”

“I spent a lot of time talking to visitors on line for the Vermeer show in the ’90s, because I would be relaying information to the press,” says Deborah Ziska, chief of press and public information at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. “I was always going out and asking, ‘What time did you come here? How long have you been on line?’ Then I would tell that to the papers, so visitors would know how long a wait to expect.”

“People like to see that you have a system going,” adds Lynn Parrish, assistant director of visitor services at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “They want to see that you’re organized, and that they’re all being treated the same way. When we have a line outside on the sidewalk, for example, we post staff at various points.” And that can mean a serious number of personnel devoted to one exhibition. For the Met’s McQueen retrospective, Holzer says, “between visitor services and security, we had at least 40 to 50 people working all the time.”

No matter how meticulous the advance planning, museums can’t always predict which shows will be megahits or whether the galleries will provide enough room for uncrowded viewing. For the exhibition devoted to filmmaker Tim Burton at MoMA two years ago, “we were caught off guard,” confesses Parrish. “As the show grew in popularity, things got kind of crazy.” When controlled entry, letting visitors in a few at a time, turned out to be insufficient, the museum turned to a timed-ticket system. Before “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917” opened, the museum fully expected the show to draw record numbers, and yet the sixth-floor galleries turned out to be spacious enough to see the work comfortably even at peak hours. “The challenge is a big artist in a small gallery,” Parrish says, “and that’s where you have to think about crowds and how you will deal with them.”

Visitors waiting to ride down Carsten Höller’s 102-foot slide last year at the New Museum in New York; riders on Höller’s Mirror Carousel, 2005; Singing Canaries Mobile, 2009.

“At the New Museum, the response to the Carsten Höller exhibition was unprecedented and largely unexpected,” says Karen Wong, the museum’s director of external affairs. The survey of works by the German entomologist-turned-artist, this past fall and winter, included some unusual showstoppers: a 102-foot slide that corkscrewed down two stories, a sensory-deprivation tank where visitors could float in salt water, and an installation of flashing lights that supposedly induced hallucinations. “The sheer scale and constancy of the attendance surge—which included not only our core visitors but also a large new audience—was way beyond what we imagined.” As a result, staffers had to handle exigencies more typical of a hotel than a museum. “The demand for the supply of slippers, robes, and towels that visitors needed, which required laundering and constant replenishing, greatly exceeded what we anticipated,” notes Wong. To cover the tab, the museum raised the cost of regular admission from $12 to $16. The price hike wasn’t permanent—it has since dropped to $14—but it showed, Wong says, “how increased resources can translate into improved customer service.”

However, a big turnout can sometimes translate into lower ticket prices. For last year’s exhibition “Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art,” the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, promoted a limited-time two-dollar discount on tickets for lower-traffic slots on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “Those tickets sold well, and as a result high-traffic days weren’t oversubscribed and less-popular time slots were filled more than they might have been,” says Jennifer Garza, director of membership and guest services at the museum.

One great boon for museums sponsoring heavily attended blockbusters has been the number of memberships sold. More than 23,000 people purchased memberships to the Met during the run of the McQueen show, allowing those visitors to skip the line. (Another 17,000 paid $50 to see the exhibition during its last eight Mondays, when the museum is normally closed.) Similarly, MoMA sees its memberships soar when it implements timed ticketing. “We let members go any time they want to when there’s a timed-ticketed show,” says Parrish, “which is good and bad because it creates a variable—you don’t really know what’s going to happen. You might have a hundred members per half hour with their guests, or you might have 15 members.”

But blockbusters can also bring headaches in the form of ticket scalping. During the recent major exhibition of works by Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery in London, websites like eBay had tickets priced as high as £400 (about $628) when the regular charge was £16 ($25) per person. The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., faced similar problems for two of its biggest hits, “Johannes Vermeer,” in 1995, and “Van Gogh’s van Goghs,” in 1998. Museum passes, which are free, “were going for more than Redskins tickets at the time,” says Ziska. “A lot of homeless people would get on line for passes and then go off and scalp them.”

Museum personnel encounter other possibly devious tactics used to slip into popular shows. “You’d get calls from people who would give you these stories and you just don’t know what to think,” says Ziska. “‘My mother has cancer, and this is her last wish. Can you please get us in?’ Sometimes you don’t know what to say, but you try to believe them, to be sympathetic.”

Of course there are things visitors themselves can do to make a museum trip more pleasurable, no matter how packed the galleries. After newspaper reports of “gallery rage” at Tate Modern last year, Tim Dowling, a columnist for the Guardian, offered a set of cheeky-but-practical tips for making the most of the blockbuster experience. Go early or late, he advised, and tour the show nonsequentially, since “visitors tend to bunch up at the first few works of art.” Skip the audio tour for the same reason, and wear a high-visibility vest: “It makes you look official; people will be afraid to jostle you.” He even suggested forgoing the crowd-pleasers entirely. “Cultivate a taste for the overlooked, the offputting, the little understood and the poorly reviewed.”

Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

Copyright 2013, ARTnews LLC, 48 West 38th St 9th FL NY NY 10018. All rights reserved.

Accessibility Checklists from the Berlin Museums

The Association of Museums in Berlin (LMB) provide checklists for exhibition design for visitors with special needs.

Please find this information in German on their Website. If you want to contribute to make this information available in English, please get back to us, as we are working on similar guidelines and checklists.

Together, we will be stronger. OK, at least, we will be more efficient.

Here comes the information from the LMB’s website, anyways.

Best, the Museum For All team.

Email: info(at)museumforall.eu


Barrierefreiheit

Checkliste zur Konzeption und Gestaltung von barrierefreien Ausstellungen

Die hier zum Download bereit stehende Checkliste zur Konzeption und Gestaltung von barrierefreien Ausstellungen wurde von einer Arbeitsgruppe des Landesverbandes der Museen zu Berlin e.V. (LMB) entwickelt. Zu dieser AG gehören Architekten für barrierefreies Bauen, Museumspädagogen, Museumsmitarbeiter und Ausstellungsgestalter sowie auch sehbehinderte, blinde und hörgeschädigte Menschen. Darüber hinaus wurde die Liste mit Betroffenenverbänden des Landesbeirats für Menschen mit Behinderung sowie dem Landesbeauftragten für Menschen mit Behinderungen abgestimmt.

Die Checkliste wird nun der Öffentlichkeit vorgelegt und einem Praxistest unterzogen. Kommentare und Vorschläge von Seiten der Anwender sind dabei willkommen. Sie sind zu richten an: barrierefrei@lmb.museum. Die daraus gewonnenen Erkenntnisse werden in eine aktualisierte Version der Checkliste einfließen.

Inhalt:

Die Checkliste zur Konzeption und Gestaltung von barrierefreien Ausstellungen gliedert sich in die Präambel und die vier Abschnitte:

Präambel
Teil 1: Checkliste Bewegen
Teil 2: Checkliste Sehen
Teil 3: Checkliste Hören
Teil 4: Checkliste Verstehen
mit jeweils kurzen Erläuterungen zum Ausfüllen