Experiencing Art: Is It Really Better Alone?

2 Dec
MIA visitors exploring the museum together.

MIA visitors take a closer look at the museums display of “Enchanted Owl” prints by Inuit artis Kenojuak Ashevak.

A story in the New York Times has recently been making its way around the internet that’s been of particular interest to art museums. The cruxt of the article “Art’s Emotional Tug Is Best Experienced Alone, A Study Finds” is

How much museumgoers know about art makes little difference in how they engage with exhibits, according to a study by a German cultural scholar who used electronics to measure which items caught visitors’ attention and how they were emotionally affected. The scholar, Martin Tröndle, also found that solitary visitors typically spent more time looking at art and that they experienced more emotions.

This got our staff talking – a lot. In the spirit of open dialogue, we’ve decided to compile the reactions of four of our staff members here: our Gallery Director Christine, our Volunteer Coordinator Lindsay, our Visitor Services Officer Brittany Holliss, and me, the museum’s Associate Curator. We’re curious to hear from others what they think about this study, too, so let us know.

From Christine:

The researchers have used innovative technology to track the physical reactions of visitors during their experience in the museum, and the technology has potential for many uses in visitor research. However, the actual interpretation of the data seems more like guessing than a scientific reality.

That knowledge is making people ignorant seems quite a leap based on the observation that professionals in this field spend less time looking through the exhibition. Quite possibly the professionals have already seen many of the works before. In general, they have an extensive background and years of experience attending museums and exhibitions, which they may be using to process the information around them more quickly. As a museum professional myself, I can spend little time in a room but the exhibition might make an enormous impact on me, which I process later in solitude.

The idea that visitors want to trip over the art is also suspect in terms of interpreting empirical data. The data does not show (unless they have more data hidden elsewhere) that people want to trip over art, instead it shows that they have a physical reaction to art that is in their way. This is not to say that larger, experiential works do not affect larger numbers of visitors less or more, but the data does not conclusively show that is the case.

There are some things I agree with on a personal level; that smaller museums with fewer works are more manageable and therefore quite enjoyable, but that is because those elements suit my individual personality. In fact, I would suggest that the vast majority of people spending time in the museum where research was carried out also like that style of museum. Smaller museums tend to attract specific audiences, whereas world famous institutions like the Louvre will arguably attract a more diverse audience.

In the end I think the study collected interesting data, but more data is required and the constant variables need to be determined in the environment. For example, what are the temperatures and noise levels in different areas that could affect the way people physically react in a space alone versus in groups (smaller spaces may be less comfortable for groups and manifest physically). Further studies in different sizes and styles of art museums should also be undertaken, as well as in different regions and countries. Qualitative studies should accompany this quantitative study to help interpret the data, since the researchers are trying to discuss very qualitative results.

From Lindsay:

After reading the article published in the New York Times on Martin Tröndle’s eMotion study on visitor interaction and emotional reaction to artwork on display in the galleries of Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in Switzerland, I was surprised by the reported finding that “arts emotional tug is best experienced alone.” As an individual without an art history background, I get a greater appreciation of artwork when experienced socially; taking guide tours or simply talking with a friend helps me delve deeper into the piece in front of me.

Having conducted visitor studies within museums previously, the dataglove technology developed by Trondle’s team excited me as tracking visitor movement throughout galleries can be very difficult and time consuming. However, I started to question the methodology and analysis of the data collected based on my initial reaction.

I tend to lean towards sentiments put forth by Bonnie Pitman, former director of the Dallas Museum of Art and co-author of Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums. I’m not convinced that sweaty hands or an increased heart rate is an indication of an emotional reaction to the art. Perhaps these visitors were feeling uncomfortable within the museum space? Or were hot due to over crowdedness? In circumstances like this, these physical reactions would not be indicators of an “art-affected state”.

It’s a bit of an overstatement, in my opinion, to say that people with a proficient knowledge of art are “ignorant” for being more selective in what they chose to look at rather than diligently going from one work to another reading the accompanying text panels. It is important to keep in mind the contextual factors that could impact the length of time spent and the number of pieces viewed by a visitor. Firstly, the fact that the individuals participating in the study knew that they were being monitored could have influenced them to stay in front of a piece of art longer than they would under normal circumstances.

A visitor experience, in terms of level of engagement, shouldn’t only be measured quantitatively. While I can appreciate that “solitary visitors typically spent more time looking at art”, this does not necessarily mean that the viewer is gaining a greater appreciation of the artwork they are looking at. People become engaged with objects when ‘cognitive hooks’ are present; these differ from person to person based on their individual interests and backgrounds. So, I might look at a piece by an artist whose name I recognize longer than an unknown artist, or at a landscape of a place that looks familiar, or a piece with a title that ‘means’ something to me based on my own personal experiences. Such ‘cognitive hooks’ usually translate into a visitor becoming engaged with a work rather than being a mere passive observer. I might not look at these pieces as long as others, but I will likely remember the reaction I had to them and acquire knowledge about them because I can relate to them on a personal level.

That being said, the potential practical use of the dataglove technology is important to note as the ease it brings to tracking visitors within the museum space could be quite useful. Findings, such as “visitors tended to feel more stimulated by sculptures and installations that impeded their progress through the galleries,” can help with exhibition design. Having visitors wear the gloves and walk through a display as part of formative or remedial evaluation could be beneficial in determining the optimal pacing and flow of an exhibition. Only time will tell how best to employ this new technology.

To be fair, my reaction is perhaps a bit premature as I have not had access to the qualitative analysis of the post-interviews that accompanied Tröndle’s study. I look forward to reading Tröndle’s paper when it’s published in the Museum Management and Curatorship journal this December.

From Brittany:

I know I’m probably going to instigate a series of sighs and eye rolls from readers as I straddle the fence post, but the longer I think back on my past museum visits the harder it is to determine which method (experiencing art solo or in a group) was the “best” or most emotionally stimulating.

As a museum studies student here in Toronto I’ve visited galleries for all sorts of different reasons: writing exhibition reviews and critiques, studying examples of new museum methodologies, touring with museum professionals to learn behind the scenes information, and simply checking out openings out of my own interest. In some of these instances I’ve gone alone, with friends and family, or as part of a larger school group and each of these experiences came with its own pros and cons. I’m sure we can all recall a time when our trip was interrupted by noisy and pushy crowds or been alone in a quite gallery pretending that it was our own personal collection (or is that just the art dork in me?). But the reverse of these can also be true. How frustrating is it when you’re just so extremely excited to be standing in front of  your favourite museum piece in all its glory but not be able to turn someone standing next to you and gush over the artistic brilliance (again, am I the only who will randomly jump in with a fun fact that just needs to be shared?).

The article includes a statement suggesting how those who, “… communicate with an artwork cannot converse with those in their company simultaneously.” Well if you literally mean for those things to happen at the exact same moment then I’m in agreement but from my personal experiences things seem to follow the formula: move to a painting, stare for a moment, discuss, and repeat. Depending on the company, the conversation might not be very academic, but there’s usually some kind of analysis or dissection and always a critique or compliment even if it’s a simple “THAT’S supposed to be art?!” Without those kinds of interactions with a fellow museum goer I’m not sure I could safely say my viewing time of a single art piece would be extended even if I had the opportunity for silent reflection uninfluenced by another’s opinion.

And here’s a good place to emphasize that this was an ART exhibition. Would this same type of visitor evaluation work if it were applied to science or natural history museum exhibitions? Would the same types of emotions be activated? Could the same types of emotions be activated? Maybe it is not the visual properties that the art is revealing that visitors are connecting to; maybe it is a concept or idea that has activated something inside of them. It is difficult to tell from this single article and not have access to the full report to determine whether or not this is an instance of causation versus correlation.

And there you have it, my justification for a non-committal answer!

From Alysa:

Since the study in question is about gauging emotional reactions, I want to be upfront with my initial “gut response” to this article: I was overwhelmingly skeptical about these arguments. The reason why has to do with two components of this argument: (1) the assertion that the emotional power of art is best experienced alone and (2) the idea that “knowledge [of art] is making you ignorant.”

I think that these are interesting ideas to discuss – how is art “best” experienced – but that the study and the article do not always tally with other research or experiences we see in MIA. The idea that there is a situation in which the emotional experience of an artwork is “ideal” seems misguided because it ignores differences in artwork and in visitors. John Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor makes a compelling case for looking at visitors not as “engineers and dentists” – or their professional or demographic categories – but rather that their motivations for visiting a cultural institution have far more influence over both their expectations and experience. Through this lens, the issue of “knowledge making you ignorant” is much more complicated: when I visit an exhibition of art, I am often looking at different aspects of the exhibition because I am a museum professional. In Falk’s terminology, I am a “Professional/Hobbyist”. This does not preclude me from engaging with the exhibited works; it does often mean that the course of my visit looks different than a non-professional. That visitor motivations can play a far larger role in how people interact with artworks and exhibition spaces than their level of knowledge or occupation leads me to believe that marking the duration of stay as one of the most important factors dictating engagement seems misguided at best.

Even when I am not looking at an exhibition through the lens of a professional, engaging with artwork takes many forms – some of which can be dictated by the form of the art itself. There are many different levels on which someone can engage or be moved by an artwork and I would hesitate to say that each has a measurable physical reaction in line with what the study was measuring. The idea that can be most emotionally powerful when you are alone also contradicts what we have observed here – that emotionally important experiences can happen around artwork in a group of people, even when the object is not being used as a social object to facilitate other interactions. To return to the issue of visitor motivations, emotions related to expectations of a visit could likely produce a physical response as well. For example, if my expectations going to an exhibition were to have many interactives and there were none, I may have sweaty palms because I would be frustrated.

In the end, I think that to designate one response to art as “the best”, or even to prescribe that there is a “best” way of achieving one particular reaction to art, can elide many important differences in museum visitors (and the museums themselves). As art museums, we should seek out and support a diversity in our audiences, and that means accepting that art can have as many different meanings and values as we have visitors. Ben Davis’ “Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up With Our Changing Society”  makes this point strongly – maybe part of the reason that art museums as a whole have not kept pace with its potential audiences is due to assigning these kinds of value judgements on experiences.


-Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Associate Curator and Director of Education

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