Survey of Arts Management

Course blog for American University PERF-570, Fall 2014

Your Brain On Museums

a simpson nails it

This article on Hyperallergic addresses the purpose of museum design. If the stained-glass light and airy spaces in churches are meant to induce feelings of spirituality, and the towering walls of a medieval castle are meant to induce fear and intimidation in the hearts of intruders, then are museums built to induce contemplation in visitors?

This article reminded me of our talk this week about arts organizations investing in their own physical space. As Andrew quoted, ‘reality is a cruel mistress’, and it may not be a necessary asset for the organization to continue to produce quality work. But what if the architecture of an art organization’s physical space made audiences more responsive to the art inside of it?

Recently, The Catholic University of America and the University of Utah ran a study investigating this very question:

“The researchers wanted to find out whether people visiting museums, churches, and libraries experience similar brain activity to those practicing meditation. If they were able to show that architecture facilitates such contemplation, it would mean that the benefits of meditation can be achieved not only by “internally-induced (self-directed) methods,” which such research tends to focus on, but also by outwardly imposed ones.”

Titled “fMRI Study of Architecturally-Induced Contemplative States”, the study took a homogenous group of male architects (all were white and male) and showed them a series of photographs of different buildings. Some buildings, like churches and museums, were meant to ‘induce contemplation’, while other buildings like schools and office structures represented ‘non-contemplative spaces’.

The results showed that ‘contemplative spaces’ did induce a kind of ‘internally generated meditation’, although it isn’t exactly the same as this meditation: “‘…they (the results) also exhibit considerable differences that find better correspondence with peak/flow psycho-somatic states and profound aesthetic experiences.’ In other words, a visit to the Morgan Library may calm you down, but it doesn’t stimulate the same parts of your brain that, say, praying does.”

This was a pilot study, so the researchers plan to conduct a more extensive study in the future that will include a more diverse subject group. I really enjoyed this study, and from personal experience, I definitely think that certain spaces affect my mindset and mood. I find that I work better in certain spaces than others, and I dream better in certain rooms. It would make sense that I am more inclined to contemplate and meditate on art in some spaces over others! If research like this produces more tangible results in the future, it would be interesting to see how arts organizations use their findings in creating new ‘creative spaces’.

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One comment on “Your Brain On Museums

  1. hshambroom
    November 19, 2014

    I love the idea of a museum as a meditative space. I certainly think that architecture can contribute to that, or, as we discussed in class, sometimes the architecture, in being beautiful can end up detracting from the work inside. I think the creation of a museum should be a co-participation process between architect and curator. Another thing that I’ve noticed is that often times the crowds in museums detract from the meditative experience that the architecture, in theory, could facilitate. The presence of other visitors cramming to see certain works, especially in blockbuster shows, often overshadows any architectural feature.

    As annoying as it can be to make reservations, and even though it can sometimes give off the impression of exclusivity, I have found that the best, most contemplative museum experiences I have are at places that are by appointment, and limit the number of guests present at any given time. It is in those situations that I find myself, without the presence of crowds in the galleries, able to actually look at and understand the architectural space that the art exists in.

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