A Taste of Curation: Neuroaesthetics at HAM


The Harvard Art Museums, affectionately referred to as “HAM”, places students at the forefront. From affording them research and work opportunities, to hosting lectures of all subjects in the museum, to allowing us to use the Art Study Center to sit alone with original works of art, HAM truly operates with students at the helm.

As a member of HAM’s Student Board, I have had the great fortune of hearing from different museum faculty about their work within the museum and how, often times, students can get involved. During one particular meeting last Spring, Laura Muir (Research Curator for Academic and Public Programs) spoke to us about the University Teaching Gallery: a space for Harvard courses to select objects from the museum to accompany their syllabus and encourage students to apply what they’re learning in class to objects that they encounter outside the classroom. In concluding this discussion, Laura mentioned she was in the process of selecting the courses to participate in this gallery for the Fall semester.

Since I’ve always been curious about how exhibitions are put together (everything from the narrative arc to the politics of acquiring desired pieces), I jumped at the opportunity to get involved. I immediately thought of working with my Neuroaesthetics Professor, Dr. Nancy Etcoff, to propose objects that would add a visual element to her already robust course design.

So, with the guidance from collaborating with Dr. Etcoff and the help of Laura in synthesizing our ideas, Harvard’s first ever class focused exhibit on Neuroaesthetics was unveiled in this Fall of 2018. Here’s a bit about what you’ll see if you visit, and how this opportunity has changed the way I experience museums for the better:

In looking at the course syllabus and teasing out the topics that would benefit most from visual counterparts, we structured the 9 objects in the exhibit to follow the themes of The Face / Gaze, What is Beauty / Art, Synesthesia / The Sublime, Longing / Melancholy, and The Uncanny.

The Face / Gaze

Paul Citroen “Self Portrait.” & Zhang Xiaogang “Portrait.” (Images from HAM Website)

For this portion, we were inspired by studies we’d read in the course that discussed how people perceive others’ affects based on how we interpret their gaze. In one particular study, it was explained that a portrait of a man was perceived as affable when told the man was looking at a scene of a family, but his look instantly became lecherous when told he was gazing at a swimsuit model. With this disparity, we want viewers to wonder about the affect of these sitters, and, how (if at all) that changes when positioned looking at I’m With Stupid (info below) in the gallery space.

What is Beauty / Art?

Unknown Artist, “Katar Dagger.” & Unknown Artist, “Priming Flask in the Form of a Fish.” (Images from HAM Website)

The course opens with a discussion about what is art and what is beauty. Can tools be aesthetic objects? And, if so, why? These two objects meld functionality and ornamentation. The left dagger doubling as protective, yet decorative, arm wear, and the right flask being designed to emulate the body of a fish. The latter example even ties in with the current special exhibition on view in the museum, Animal Shaped Vessels!

Synesthesia / The Sublime

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, “Harmony in Blue and Silver: Beaching the Boat, Étretat.” & Albert Bierstadt, “In the Sierras.” (Images from HAM Website)

When people hear of “neuroaesthetics” the topic of synesthesia often comes to mind as it’s neurological cross-wiring has had well documented impact on the arts. Think Kandinsky and his desire to visualize music. While, there wasn’t a perfect example of Kandinsky to pull for the exhibition, we turned to Whistler and his similar motivation to combine music and visual art. Similar to the awe-inspiring underpinnings of synesthesia, the concept of the sublime comes into neuroaesthetics as being an extreme example of sensory overload. Here, we chose a classic, sublime landscape example by Bierstadt.

Longing / Memory

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Girl I.” & Johannes Wierix After Albrecht Dürer, “Melancholia.” (Images from HAM Website)

Depictions of sad affects are often the most easily recognizable for viewers, as the somber tone quickly resonates with past emotional experiences. For this phenomenon, we chose two depictions of melancholy and positioned them to be looking at one another. The left figure leaning more towards the realm of longing, and the right figure being a personification of melancholy herself.

The Uncanny

Rachel Harrison, “I'm With Stupid.” (Image from HAM Website)


My favorite inclusion in the exhibit has to be I’m With Stupid, as it challenges viewers to think about almost all of the above categories. Is it art? Or just a mishmash of cacophonous objects? What are the faces telling you? Can you even see them, or are they even human faces? Does it tantalize your senses? How so? And, ultimately, who is the ‘stupid’ that the title refers to? One of the two figures, or you?

For a museum who prioritizes student engagement and involvement, co-curating this exhibit had to be one of my favorite experiences here and best manifestations of the museum’s mission. I even talk a little bit about the experience in an article about another great museum moment: The Student Late Night.

Moral of the story: if you’re curious about something, go after it. Especially here at Harvard, a playground I’m fortunate to have access to, the resources are what you make of them.

Xx, Maia


Color Rx: In Retrospect


"What's your favorite color?"

... a standard childhood inquiry, yet somehow it always presented more internal strife than it did successful small talk. So, a few months ago, I decided to explore that passionate, colorful love affair of mine a little further. After a summer long internship at metaLAB, with an independent research project included, I produced Color Rx as an interactive installation at the Harvard Art Museums on August 12th, 2017 - and here's why:

First, as a minor synesthete, I grew up feeling strongly that colors had personalities. I remember always being asked to pick my favorite in elementary, and struggling internally to say one I loved without hurting the “feelings” of all the other colors. I also remember owning an extensive collection of pens and highlighters in middle school, and when being asked to name one of the more peculiar and original shades that Sharpie had just released, I instinctively blurted out Electric Salmon.

Second, growing up, as much as I loved colors, my mom loved the Universe – specifically the power of numerology. A fond believer of “everything happens for a reason” my mom taught me how to trust in the Universe and its healing capabilities. From pursuing alternative methods to medicine like homeopathy to frequently finding ourselves in stores that have extensive collections of crystals and sage, I soon learned how capable colors also were in the healing process. And when she gifted me a coffee table book called “Colorstrology” in which you can look up your birthday and read about the color that best suits you, I was amused and intrigued and realized that color’s history, its substance, and its context link inextricably to our perceptions and experience.

So, with the support of my team at metaLAB, countless visits to the Straus Center to view the Forbes Pigment Collection, and some troubleshooting help from the DIET team, I devised a simple algorithm to serve as a tactile manifestation of this conversation between belief and truth, projection and reality, and color and illusion. And, given that I am both the artist behind this project and the author of this summary, let me just quote myself from my Artist's Statement:  

"Color is ephemeral and complex. An installation in the Lightbox Gallery at Harvard Art Museums, Color Rx contended with the individuality of perception, while maintaining that the experiences in which perceptions are grounded can be traced back to, and tethered together by, a common, colorful trend. Drawing inspiration from Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection, scholarly texts, and the artist’s knowledge and intuition, the piece explored lines between truth and belief, color and illusion. And yet its prescriptions, unconventional and mysterious though they may be, made connections and produced impacts in the world, for gallery visitors and others.

Color Rx used a computer algorithm to diagnose a viewer’s inputs and “prescribe a color” in response. The piece was grounded in questions about trust in, or benefit from, “smart” systems, often in contexts where the algorithms are opaque—even when the output is very concrete. What does it mean for machines or systems to drive our behavior? Can we adequately assess the benefits and risks?"

Video by Bardi.

Set up as a pop up installation in the Lightbox Gallery of the Harvard Art Museums, visitors were able to approach a keyboard and type in a response to the provocation, "Think about what you need and tell me in 1-3 sentences." The thinking behind that phraseology was simply that I wanted to elicit a thoughtful, heartfelt response from my viewers - one in which I could attempt to "detect their mood" and provide them with a color to supplement it or just to make them smile. 

The white walls of the space itself lit up as the 9 screens flickered with changing color prescriptions, and the visibility of the pigment collection on the floor below allowed the visitors to directly understand the relationship I was drawing for this project. 

Friends, colleagues, and museum visitors alike all found their way to my gallery and engaged with the algorithm. After receiving their virtual "prescription," visitors could pick up a tactile "print out" of their Rx, cleverly attached to a paint chip of their prescribed color. 

How did I match the colors to the emotions? Well, I took the 36 most "emotionally resonant" pigments in the Forbes Pigment Collection (for me), matched all of the pigments to commercially found paint chips, and drew associations between hues and affect. With this comparison, I did not attempt to provide a direct correlation between the pigments and paints I chose, rather I used the paint chips as physical proxies for the pigments in hues that, to me, behave similarly.

Color Rx proved to be not only amusing and uplifting for visitors, but instrumental and enlightening for me. I know those are rather sweeping claims, but when you have the opportunity to exhibit your own creations in a space you never thought you'd get to make your own is truly a remarkable feeling. So thank you to everyone who helped make it happen, from metaLAB to the museum to my mother - my young life just got a lot more colorful.

Xx, Maia