How The Peabody Essex Museum Uses Neuroscience To Understand Art – Open Studio with Jared Bowen

We’re at the new PEM. The Peabody Essex Museum
in Salem has added 40,000 square feet
of new exhibition space, displaying everything
from maritime works to fashion. And it makes it one of the
largest museums in the country. It’s all over
but the unwrapping. The Peabody Essex Museum now has a soaring new
40,000-square-foot wing, climbing three floors to showcase its collection
of 1.8 million works. What’s it like to see it
realized?>>It is going to be
a dream come true.>>BOWEN: Lynda Roscoe Hartigan
is the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. She’s been here
throughout the three-year, $125 million
construction process. What does this new wing
represent?>>Oh, it’s a whole new
adventure. It’s an opportunity
for the museum to share the incredible richness of its
many facets of its collection.>>BOWEN: In, she says,
a more engaging way. Design is paramount here, in colors, assemblages,
and lighting. The new wing’s first floor features the museum’s
maritime art. The second floor holds
Asian export art– including work
held in the collection since the museum’s founding. That was in 1799, making PEM the country’s oldest
continuously operating museum.>>That does give us
a kind of legacy to work with, and the opportunity
to help people think about, what are the connections among the past, the present,
and the future?>>BOWEN: The new wing’s
top floor features something altogether different
for the museum– its first fashion and design
gallery.>>It’s really about
how we as human beings have used fashion and design
to shape ourselves, to shape our environment, and so really getting into
the personal core of what creativity brings out
in people.>>BOWEN: How do you want people
to experience your building?>>Well, I think we spent
a lot of time thinking about the sequence
and how it unfolds, and hopefully having surprise.>>BOWEN: Richard Olcott is
a partner at Ennead Architects, the firm which designed
the new wing. It is sun-drenched–
very much by design.>>There are constant places
where you come out and you, and you have daylight, or you have views out
to the street. So that is all a carefully
thought-about sequence, from art to the sequence
of the street, to the view,
to back to the art.>>BOWEN: The new wing sits next to the museum’s
oldest building, also a National Historic
Landmark– East India Marine Hall. Olcott says his firm acted in
deference to the stately hall, but also mined it
for inspiration.>>The original building
is made of a local granite called Chelmsford granite. And so we thought that would be
a really great tie for… between old and new. So this is all the same granite as was put on this building
in 1825.>>We want this to be a respite, a place of repose
and reflection.>>BOWEN: With a new
5,000-square-foot garden, the Peabody Essex,
built on exploration, invites visitors outside
for their own. The garden is designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz
Landscape Architects, most recently known for its work on New York’s monumental
Hudson Yards project. So this is the first moment that
people have with your garden. (water rushing)
>>Exactly. You will have just walked
out of the museum and you’ll hear
this rush of water.>>BOWEN:
Thomas Woltz is the owner and principal architect
of the firm. The garden begins
with this granite slab, carved with lines
evoking the water currents around Cape Horn, the path the museum’s
earliest objects traveled. From here, a dark granite ribbon
winds its way into the first
of three garden rooms.>>I would sum this garden up
as an experience of exploration as a counterpoint to the museum, a moment to listen
to the trickle of water, to see butterflies
in the garden, to see flowering plants,
or fall color, to really connect a little bit
with nature.>>BOWEN: The first room
is comprised of plants native to the Northeast. Woltz calls the second room
a convergence garden– a mix of native and non-native
species or hybrids.>>Hybridization is how
our nation was made. The idea of hybridization
of culture, hybridization of plants, is what leads
to a vigorous society. And I believe that in gardens,
as well.>>BOWEN:
The third and final garden room sprouts Asiatic species. Throughout, a small river
runs through it. Called a poetry fountain, it’s derived from an ancient
Chinese garden tradition that would connect people
on either end.>>One person,
a friend or lover, could write a note
and put it in a little cup and float it down
while they looked at each other. So it was a very slow
and long way for friends to have
a very meaningful dialogue.>>I’m just going to put a
couple of pads on your fingers.>>BOWEN:
Back inside the museum, I’m being fitted
by Dr. Tedi Asher. She is the only neuroscientist
in the world to be on staff at a museum. For the past year,
she’s conducted research– monitoring visitors,
as she will me, to learn more about how we
experience art neurologically.>>We can monitor how
our visitors or participants allocate their visual attention
in a gallery. We can get a read
on their emotional experience by having them wear monitors that measure
physiological responses, such as the galvanic skin
response, which measures
emotional arousal– how intense an experience is.>>BOWEN: Asher recorded
my reactions as I walked through the museum’s
exhibition of the photographs
of Olivia Parker. She focuses on visitors’
attention, emotion, and memory. She distills the findings
and now shares them with her curatorial
counterparts.>>So if there’s an image,
let’s say, or a scene, that contains a person, we will devote
most of our attention to looking at that human form
or human face. And we even have regions
in our brain that are specialized
for processing the human face. And so those types of findings have really informed
our discussions around the design of one of our new permanent
collection galleries, called “Powerful Figures.”>>BOWEN:
Nearly two months later, I met with Asher again
to review my results. I have to say, I’m a little bit
afraid, actually, that it will tell me
that I have no emotion.>>Oh, don’t worry.
>>BOWEN: I’m dead inside.>>First of all,
I wouldn’t be able to know that based on the measurements
that we took.>>BOWEN:
What she could register was the varying intensity
of my emotional response to the exhibition, a series of what she describes
as logical ups and downs.>>This huge peak when you first
go into the exhibition corresponded to when you were
reading the introductory text. So that was really,
in my analysis the first time, that you engaged with
the content of the exhibition and you were beginning to
understand what it was about. Interestingly, we see a similar
juxtaposition or pairing of moments like that in this emotionally intense
section, the “vanishing in plain sight”
section.>>BOWEN: Asher says there are
variables in all her research. Seeing someone I know
in the gallery, for instance, can alter my reaction. Which is why her analysis
is typically of groups, not individuals like me alone. This is fascinating. You must love your work.
>>I really do. (both laughing)>>BOWEN: But I can tell you
in my memory of experiencing the exhibition, this tracks with me
remembering how I felt.>>One’s level
of emotional arousal, or the intensity
of the experience, correlates with one’s… with the probability
of remembering that experience.>>BOWEN: Here, it’s not just the Peabody Essex Museum
building that has expanded, but the thinking, inside out.

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