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Salk Institute scientists want to know what makes a good art exhibit

Ever since museums have existed, directors have tried to imagine the best way to arrange and illuminate the objects on display. But now art museums are getting some help from science. KPBS sci-tech reporter Thomas Fudge has this story about an experiment that tries to determine what museum goers really want to see.

A video shot at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, shows museum visitors at a pottery and ceramics exhibit. They approach a display case, circle it and stand for a few seconds, to observe it from a certain angle, before moving on to the next object.

The video is one small piece of the visual data the Salk Institute will examine to find out how people interact with art objects.

Ever since museums have existed, directors have tried to imagine the best way to arrange and illuminate the objects on display. But now they are getting some help from science.

Professor Tom Albright, a neuroscientist at Salk, said the people in the videos are converted by the computer to stick figures with articulated joints to analyze their movements.

“Then we use the computer to characterize certain movements that people make. Like pointing. Or standing in front of an object for some extended period of time. Or turning and talking to a friend who came to the museum with them,” Albright said.

“Then we can look at the frequency of these events. When do they occur as people move through the gallery? What’s the path that somebody takes as they move through the gallery?”

The experiment is funded by a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, and Albright says it has two goals. One is focused on creating a good museum exhibition space.

“So how can we optimize the placement of objects in the gallery to facilitate learning, on the part of the visitors,” said Albright. “The second goal is to understand how people behave. How visual information and access, motor access to the space, affects the choices they make.”

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Roland Lizarondo
Salk Institute neuroscience professor Tom Albright talks about a study of visual cues and human behavior that seeks to understand how people engage with works of art, Nov 7, 2022.

Albright’s specialty as a neuroscientist is to study visual cues and learn how they are processed by the brain and affect our behaviors. He is known for his forensic research into eyewitness evidence and testimony in criminal cases; evidence that can be very unreliable.

Albright is also a member of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture.

“The question that academy asks is, 'Given what we know about the brain, can we predict the kind of environments that will facilitate certain kinds of human behavior?' For example, how you can build a classroom that will improve educational outcomes,” he said.

He adds that the same question can clearly be asked about what is the best space for consuming art.

The Salk Institute is partnering with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where people's behavior is being examined and recorded by a set of cameras near the top of the gallery’s 20-foot walls.

“There are some things that we’re always interested in, like how to engage the visitor in different ways,” said Victoria Behner, the director of exhibition design at LACMA.

“How much information do we provide to a visitor up front? You know, the written word. Also, (we make) a circulation assumption and also assumptions regarding lighting. Do they make a difference? If we put one in, what happens? If we pull one out, what happens?”

She said for all the anecdotes they’ve heard and observational studies they’ve done, she thinks this study will provide much more comprehensive information on how to engage museum visitors.

“This study will provide us with some really great data we can then use toward future decision making. And then when we say, ‘We know that this is what happens, but we want to do something else anyway,’ at least we know what we’re doing.”

Exhibit design as we know it

In La Jolla, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego now has an exhibition of art from the Light and Space movement of the 1960s and 70s. The museum’s senior curator Jill Dawsey showed me an 8-foot tall sculpture made from resin, called Diamond Column.

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Roland Lizarondo
Senior curator Jill Dawsey and reporter Thomas Fudge view the sculpture Diamond Column, by DeWain Valentine, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Nov 7, 2022.

“And as we move around it, it really changes,” she said as we approached the piece. “You know, when you’re standing straight on, it has rounded corners. And yet as you move around it has sharp edges,”

Diamond Column, by DeWain Valentine, is clearly the star of the exhibit. As you enter the gallery it’s the first thing you see. It is translucent and changes color as you move around it and as the gallery’s natural light fades or brightens.

Dawsey said just putting two art works in the same space makes a statement about the story you want to tell.

“So we think carefully about how we are creating meaning and the stories we are telling. We think about the pacing of art objects and how much space goes in between them,” Dawsey said. “We think about sightlines and how we are going to stage an artwork to pull a visitor forward into a room.”

And, she said, you’ve got to put a sculpture in a place where a visitor isn’t going to back into it when they’re looking at a painting on the wall.

Dawsey said she’s very interested to know what Salk finds in its experiment.

“Because in my experience visitors navigate the museum in their own idiosyncratic ways. But it would be helpful to know the pace at which people are moving through the gallery and how often artworks really do serve as conversation pieces,” she said.

Salk scientist Tom Albright says scientists will manipulate the exhibit at LACMA to see how that affects visitor behavior. Descriptive text, will be shortened or expanded. Pieces of art will be moved to different locations in the gallery.

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Roland Lizarondo
An exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Nov 7, 2022.

From the standpoint of science, it’s all about how the brain responds to visual cues, at work, on the street or in an art gallery.

“Moving through a museum is a series of decisions you have to make. Most people don’t go in with a specific plan. What are the factors that are leading to those decisions? That’s what we’re studying,” said Albright.

The exhibition they’re studying in Los Angeles is called "Conversing in Clay: Ceramics from the LACMA Collection". It will be open until May 23, 2023.

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