Getting Wired at the Peabody Essex Museum

Benjamin Miller and Michael Diaz-Griffith Curious Objects

There’s a tried and true method for curating art exhibitions: paint walls, hang pictures, write labels, and Bob’s your uncle. But what happens when a neuroscientist gets involved? This month on Curious Objects, Ben Miller travels to Salem, MA, to learn how researchers at the Peabody Essex Museum are analyzing the ways people look at art, and blazing the way for the museology of the future.

© Peabody Essex Museum; photograph by Aislinn Weidele of Ennead Architects.
Volunteer Kimberly Collins Jermain gets outfitted with sensors. Photograph by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
A page from a tattoo Flash Book, 20th Century. Peabody Essex Museum, purchased with funds from the Maritime Visiting Committee; photograph by Bob Packert, © Peabody Essex Museum.
Volunteer Diego Martinez gets outfitted with eye-tracking glasses and sensors to keep tabs on his heart rate, breathing and changes in the electrical properties of his skin, before he tours the Georgia O’keeffe exhibition. Photograph by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Ben walking through the exhibition Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, while having his galvanic skin response monitored by the museum’s resident researcher, Tedi Asher, as part of the museum’s Neuroscience Initiative. Video footage courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.
Such Is the Way to the Stars (Sic Itur ad Astra) by Hans Hofmann, 1962. Oil on canvas. The Menil Collection, Houston, anonymous gift; photograph by George Hixson, courtesy of the Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Brian Kennedy is the director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum. Born in Dublin, Kennedy has held senior leadership positions at art museums around the world, including posts in Ireland, Australia, and the United States. He joined PEM following a nine-year tenure as the president, director and CEO of the Toledo Museum of Art, where he oversaw one of America’s great art collections.

Tedi Asher has been the neuroscience researcher at PEM since 2017, following completion of a doctoral degree in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard Medical School. As the first neuroscientist on staff at an art museum, Asher helps to inform the exhibition design strategy by analyzing emerging neuroscientific findings and proposing recommendations to increase engagement and visitor impact.