You might not have heard the term “Instagram museum” before, but you’ve probably seen them on social by now: pools filled with blow-up, oversized everyday items, rooms composed entirely of constructed environments with no clear purpose, and, marching through these often neon- or candy-colored environs, 20-somethings who kind of look like they could be famous people–either influencers or aspiring to be. We had a museum of ice cream and now a room that projects Van Gogh’s paintings on the walls (and whose social ads are clogging up everyone’s feed).
The concept is easily mock-able. Having done to death thousands of natural backdrops from beach to cliff, we’re now building places to take pictures of ourselves in, whole structures devoted more or less solely to our own narcissism. Instead of putting down the phone and having a real experience, we are now reducing real experience to the demands of a phone.
But the Insta museum isn’t an isolated phenomenon, and there are reasons even those most concerned with the devolution of our culture shouldn’t dismiss them (besides the fact that they provide jobs to out-of-work MFA grads who chose conceptual art as a concentration). As algorithms pare down our attention span and rewire our brains to depend on the IV ego drip of our feed, museums in general are finding new ways to communicate with their audiences. Just as art museums once resisted the presence of explanatory panels on their walls, only for them to now be a ubiquitous presence from the MOMA to the SFMOMA, modern museums from the cultural to the scientific are moving toward more cinematic and experiential approaches.
Insta museums represent the opposite side of that spectrum, spaces devoted to flash without substance–but it is the same spectrum, not completely disconnected from the rise of artists like Olafur Eliasson. And it’s just as possible for them to move toward providing an education, as it is for traditional museums to move toward providing an entertaining experience. In theory, anyway.
These were the thoughts I took away from visiting Artechouse’s new museum-wide exhibit, Life of a Neuron, open now through November 28, 2021.
Artechouse, located in DC with additional spots in New York City and Miami Beach, describes itself as an “innovative art destination dedicated to the intersection of art, science and technology.” It’s accurate: the effect of the space is more like a trendy art gallery than a science museum. After you get through a small entry space with a brief introductory video, the museum is mostly one big main space with a cocktail bar and two small wings.
The visuals are what’s for sale, and that’s reflected in the layout. The 20-minute Life of a Neuron video plays on a loop on the massive screen that takes up the walls and floor of the main room, depicting a super-magnified 3D approximation of the life cycle of a brain cell. There’s a vaguely industrial soundtrack that plays along with the video. Visitors congregate in the main floor to snap photos, then either drift to the wings to learn more, or to the lengthy bar to sip some pretty fancy cocktails, inspired by ingredients that help the brain to function.
The main science education is provided by panels that run alongside interactive exhibits in the wings. Visitors can watch how a digital eye reacts to their movements, or check out a series of digital panels depicting the effect of addiction on your neural network over time, then read a paragraph of text or so that explains most of what is going on.
What’s most intriguing about it is that this represents a shift for Artechouse. The Society for Neuroscience, a large DC-based professional organization for the field, approached Artechouse with the desire to create an exhibition that would communicate the nature of contemporary research in neuroscience–often an obscure topic even compared to other complex sciences–through something experiential and broadly accessible.
“They had this idea, but they didn’t know how to accomplish it, didn’t know how to create a larger-than-life neuron,” says Lena Galperina, people and community director at Artechouse. “Our intent was to fuse the science the neuroscience community has been working on for decades and the incredible research developments they’ve uncovered, with what we do best, which is an experiential art form.”
Artechouse’s artists worked with neuroscientists from the association to create a more substantial, up to date, and accurate exhibit. The main video is more than pretty optics. It’s the result of an 18-month research program, in which scientists developed what Galperina says is the first three-dimensional, multilevel model of the lifecycle of a prefrontal cortex neuron. It all sounds fairly specific, but it’s still a contribution that didn’t need to happen to get people in the door.
“Their research is going to give an opportunity to other scientists to see the neuron in a new way,” Galperina says.
On the audience’s side, Galperina points to the idea that these spaces will inspire people to ask questions and learn more, the idea being that science education doesn’t stop at the museum. When I went, attendees–many of whom were dressed as if they were attending a minor gala–were interacting with the exhibits and reading the panels, not just snapping pictures and getting a drink (though the bar was packed).
When they did get a drink, as they buried their faces back into their phone, whether they were actually googling more about neurons or just selecting their favorite shots of themselves, could determine whether a visuals-first approach for museums can fulfill what we’ve traditionally thought of as their purpose–public education–or if that purpose itself is changing.
Timed tickets are $24, anytime tickets are $30. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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