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What Happens When You Take a Psychologist to a Museum?

New methods can help us understand how we act and feel in galleries and museums.

Some of my fondest childhood school memories come from excursions to museums. On those trips we could race through millennia of Earth’s history simply by walking from one room to the next, coming face to face with Egyptian mummies, dinosaur bones, moon rocks, and astonishing displays of jewels and precious metals from civilizations unimaginably remote from our own. Such adventures were usually heavily orchestrated by teachers keen to ignite our passion for knowledge but mindful of the risks that we’d go crashing into priceless Ming pottery or clamber inside fragile sarcophagi. It must have been a delicate balancing act for them!

I still visit lots of museums and galleries and I’m still fascinated by the sweep of history that they put on display, and the feeling of authentic contact with remote times and places, but now I’m freed from the careful guiding hands of teachers and I go wherever I want. As a psychologist interested in how we navigate through space, it’s this kind of freedom, and what we do with it, that interests me the most. Public spaces like museums, galleries, and theme parks stand somewhat apart from most of the other kinds of places that we human beings inhabit. Other kinds of institutional spaces, like hospitals, schools, or government buildings, have a finely ordered kind of spatial structure. Because they are designed to fulfill very specific kinds of functions, the business of guiding visitors or employees is managed with the utmost care. There are hard distinctions between public and private spaces, lots of “rules” both implicit and explicit that make clear where to go, where to line-up, where to stand and where to sit. In contrast, cultural and entertainment venues place a premium on the simple pleasure of wandering. In fact, one of the reasons that we enjoy such spaces as much as we do is that they enable in us the freedom to simply follow our impulses, our feelings, our senses and our curiosity.

Given this, you might think that the task of a museum curator could be an easy one: simply collect up an interesting assortment of artifacts, scatter them throughout an attractive and, ideally, expansive space, and then let the chips fall where they may. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although an important part of a museum or gallery curator’s job consists of the carefully planned acquisition of historical artifacts or works of art, no less important is the planning of a visitor’s museum experience. Understanding how we move from place to place in a building that invites pleasurable exploration, what attracts the eye, how an exhibit affects our senses and our emotions is not only an integral part of an effective curator’s skill set but it is also a legitimate and fascinating subject of exploration for psychologists.

One revealing case study, conducted by the Space Syntax group at University College London, shows the power of the organization of space to affect museum experience. This interdisciplinary group of researchers stands at the cusp of architecture, psychology and computer science, and it is not only heavily involved in theoretical studies of the impact of the structure of built space, but members of the group are also often called in to consult on problems of space at all scales from urban design to building interiors. In the case study to which I refer, the Space Syntax group was recruited to analyze the use of space in one of London’s great galleries—the Tate Gallery. They used some simple methods to determine how the gallery was being used by visitors, including head counts in different rooms, measures of movement from room to room, and measures of the rate at which people entered and left different exhibit areas within the gallery. They combined these behavioural measures with some very interesting computer analyses of the shape, or grammar of the spaces within the gallery. The authors of the report concluded that quite apart from what kinds of artifacts were placed in which locations in the gallery, the movements of visitors could largely be predicted by nothing more than the shape of the building and the ways that the hallways interconnected different rooms within the space. At the Tate, visitors took advantage of a strongly interconnected central hallway or ‘main street’ to explore the gallery space, moving back and forth from main street to the interesting side alleys. What this meant overall was that visitors were able to move easily and casually through the space, enjoying an arrangement of displays that could be visited in a number of different ways, but always maintaining some sense of orientation within the larger gallery. The authors of the report argued that it was this ease, the underlying logic of the space, and an organization that allowed visitors the freedom to explore the space in a manner of their own choosing rather than by being forcibly shunted from one painting to the next, that made the gallery such a pleasant space. What I find most interesting about their study is the suggestion that how a space is put together can have enormous impact on how we explore it quite regardless of what kinds of things are placed in the space. This suggests that an artful curator can use space effectively to sculpt a visitor’s experience, perhaps even without the visitor being aware that they are doing anything other than wandering completely at will.

More recent research in visitor experiences in galleries has begun to take advantage of the wider availability of technology that allows us to collect very fine-grained information from visitors regarding their movements and even some of their feelings as they move from place to place. Indoor motion tracking can tell us where a visitor pauses, which path they take from one place to another, and what captures attention. Small, unobtrusive sensors that measure heart rate and skin conductance (a measure of physiological arousal similar to that employed in lie detectors) can give us a window into how a visitor feels as they move.

The eMotion project is an ambitious new program of study in Europe designed to explore just these aspects of the museum or gallery experience. Participants visit galleries while wearing a special data glove that not only tracks their movements but also records their heart rate and skin conductance. Special software is used to convert the visitor’s experiences in the gallery into a map that contains details about where they went and how they felt while they were there. In addition to the mapping data, participants are interviewed during their visit so that the researchers can collect basic demographic data (age, gender, socioeconomic status, artistic knowledge) and qualitative information about the visitor’s overall experience in the gallery. This qualitative information can be correlated with the mapping data to generate an incredibly detailed portrait of museum-going behaviour.

These methods are very new – some of the very first findings are just coming to publication now – but they are already beginning to yield some very interesting insights into what happens to our minds when we visit a gallery. For example, one revealing analysis showed marked differences between the emotional responses of visitors who discussed what they were seeing with friends during their visit compared with those for whom the visit was more of a solitary and interior experience. The latter group showed stronger emotional responses to what they saw, and more evidence of what museologists have described as “moments of presence” – that is, moments during which visitors slipped away from ephemeral distractions and became absorbed by, and present to, the work of art that they were inspecting. So one simple take-away message from this might be that if you are planning to go to a gallery to really experience the art, it might be better to go it alone or at least to suspend discussion with your companion until the visit is over.

I’m sure that these preliminary findings will be followed up by many more substantial insights into the unique ways that humans engage with galleries, museums and other kinds of exhibition spaces. I have some doubts that the hard-boiled scientific approaches that I’ve described will ever reach all the way to the bottom of a rich aesthetic experience in a gallery, but I fully expect that such approaches to museum design, informed by the tools and principles of psychology, will lead to more interesting, playful and exciting visitor experiences.