Museum Science and Brain Science

Going to a museum for me as a child was a stuffy experience. Trailing behind my mother, a fifth grade teacher, my brother and I saw lots of stuff on the walls and in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum. Though my mother tried to enliven the experience with tales of other worlds, it was clear that “collecting” and “preserving,” not “engaging,” were the museum’s primary activities. Museums of today, especially the smaller, non-collecting ones, are happily exploring new ways to engage their audiences. This is evident in the new exhibition, Eye to I, at the Katonah Museum (KMA). Curators there invited 120 people from all walks of life to give their impressions of preselected works of art spanning 3000 years of portraiture. Engaging the museum’s “family” in the project is huge in terms of valuing the “eyes of the beholders.”

I hasten to admit that I felt awkward when asked by Yvonne Pollack to give my take on a portrait of the very stolid Mrs. John Scollay by the artist John Singleton Copley. (Pollack, together with KMA curator Ellen Keiter and Registrar Nancy Hitchcock, were the genius behind this innovative project.) Since portraits are more accessible than other art forms, I agreed to the assignment. Faced with an impassive face, I found it hard to relate to Mrs. Scollay and I said so. My impression will be included in the museum catalog for all to see. How embarrassing! Yet, there is comfort in being surrounded by the writings of other novices like myself.

With no interpretive copy on the labels to prompt them, visitors will be on their own to voice their opinions, which they may, if they wish, record on kiosks and iPads provided by the museum. This is an interactive exhibition that celebrates the art of looking. It is based on the premise that no two people respond in the same way. People will bring a lifetime of experiences, memories, biases and education to the task. Says curator Ellen Keiter, “Interactivity is the wave of the future and a good fit for a museum of our size.” It all comes down to providing a welcoming, challenging, memorable museum experience and spreading the word hither and yon through technology and word of mouth.

Once again, the Katonah Museum is leading not only in museum science but also oddly in brain science. Their focus on portraiture includes a treatise by Eric R. Kandel, a professor of brain science at Columbia University. He reminds us in the KMA catalog that “Facial expressions are our primary social signaling system. They are central to all social communication, from forming friendship to making a business arrangement, to finding a partner.” But I guess we already learned that on Facebook.


Image: Mrs John Scollay (Mercy Greenleaf) 1763, by John Singleton Copley

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