Rethinking the Museum Experience: Museum as Journey Through the Senses: eMotion - A transdisciplinary study of visitor experiences at a modern art exhibition

Activity: Talk or presentationGuest lecturesResearch

Volker Kirchberg - Speaker

There are three experience types corresponding to the latest of the Smithsonian Institute of audience research (outlined by Doering et al. in the last years) although we reduced the four experience dimensions to three dimensions: the contemplative, the event, and the social experience in art exhibitions.

Via a triangulation of methods from entrance and exit questionnaires, movement tracking and physiological measurements, an empirical grounding of the three dimensions of exhibition experience could be given for the general subjective assessments of the exhibition, the individual ratings of the artworks, as well as for the differing spatial behaviors and the embodied reactions of the three visitor types. Most of the empirical studies concerning visitor experiences assume that social, personal, or physical characteristics influence the visit experiences. In line with this assumption, these studies follow the general idea that chronology and causality, socially and personally determined expectations, form experiences. Contrary to this presupposition, we found no impact based on personal context, nor the biographical background on the exhibition experience; furthermore, we found no indications that socio-demographic predispositions influence the individual museum experience.

We found that the encounters with the artworks, the design of the exhibition, the atmosphere, and/or the social interaction were the driving factors for how visitors experience exhibitions. The cartographies showed that the spatial behavior of the “event-seeking” type (37% of our participants) seem to be strongly affected by the space itself and its atmosphere; additionally, this type shows the strongest physiological reactions, experiencing familiar and famous artworks and immediately communicating this experience seems to be important as well. Unlike the “event-seeking” visitor group, the “contemplative” visitors (42%) demonstrate the clearest object orientation in their spatial behavior. The single artworks appear to attract them, which is indicated by the visitor paths and their focused physiological attraction centers close to the artworks. Generally speaking, their physiological reactions are weaker in comparison to the other two visitor groups. According to their self-assessments, they are more interested in curatorially refined exhibitions, oriented towards content and they enjoy information about the artworks. They seem to be interested in artworks, both new and unknown to them. Also, the “contemplative” visitors seem to be the most critical, which is evidenced by their evaluation of the individual artworks.

In the analysis of the cartographies, it became distinct that groupings along the three experience-type categories, creates noticeable differences in the mapping of the museum visitors’ spatial behavior and their embodied reactions. For our research group, it was astonishing to see how well the experience-type methodology, in its tripartite instantiation, uncovered these sociological criteria in the individual reactions of the museum visitors, compared to other groupings which were analyzed.

For museum directors and curators, this in-depth study of the exhibition experience offers interesting insights: The most important might be that the museum experience has a much larger effect on the visitor than one might have thought. A fine art museum visit should be understood as a highly atmospheric and moving, contemplative and intellectual or social experience. Independent from socio-demographic predispositions, nearly 85% of the visitors experience exhibitions in one of the presented ways. The exhibition environment – be it a curatorially refined exhibition, an exhibition, which predominantly shows famous artworks, or a museum space, which concentrates on the interaction with other the visitors – will attract a specific audience.

Ever ponder how museums influence your perception of art? Find out more about how artwork, curatorship and visitor experiences are linked in a discussion with scholars Martin Troendle (Zeppelin University, Germany) and Volker Kirchberg (Leuphana University of Lueneburg, Germany) of the eMotion - mapping museum experience project. The ubiquity of the term curating in the last decade prompted the eMotion - mapping museum experience to investigate how curatorial and spatial re/-configurations affect visitor attention and retention of information. Exhibition spaces evoke aesthetic perception, including the effects of image-text arrangements. Deploying research strategies such as visitor tracking, physiological measurements, and empirical observation demonstrate the impact of curatorial decisions on museum visitors. Data gathered from the study was translated into graphic maps, which tracked visitor pathways through exhibits. The findings offer a series of unexpected insights into the fields of curatorial studies, museum management/art administration, visitor studies and art education.


Competent Taste - Graduate Colloquium at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development 2012

26.10.12 → …

New York City, United States

Event: Workshop