scientific research and art collide

If you’re looking for works of art, it’s not hard to find.  Art is in public places, in galleries, museums and most commonly on-line.  There’s no need to take the trouble of visiting a gallery or museum, you can usually view all the exhibits on your computer, from the comfort of your sofa.    And yet, attendance at art museums has been rising over recent years.   Recent research helps explain why: people enjoy art more at the museum, they find it more stimulating, understandable, and they remember it better.

Psychological research illuminates perceptions of art

David Briimageseber and his colleagues invited 137 psychology students to view 25 artworks from Vienna’s Museum Startgalerie Beauty Contest exhibition – a series of paintings, photos and collages that explore self-image, sexuality and beauty.  The students viewed the works as part of a controlled experiment, either viewing in the physical space of the museum and from a screen or only in the virtual world.

The outcomes showed that the students found the actual art work at the museum more stimulating, positive, and interesting. They liked it more, compared with the digital reproductions.  Long-term memory of the artworks was also higher than works viewed on a screen.

Pmemory_studyart of the explanation for this might be that the physical layout of the exhibition acts as a mnemonic aid. When the students successfully recalled one exhibit, they also tended to remember other pieces nearby.

Taken together, the findings are consistent with theories of situated cognition:   there’s something about the physical space of a museum and an exhibition that changes how our minds respond to what we’re seeing.  This suggests that the physicality of a public place such as a park or a street may have the same impact on how works of art are viewed.

gallery Formalist art theory, the idea that the effects of art upon us are independent of time and place is contradicted.    There is the presence factor – of standing in front of the real thing that has an impact of size and colour.  A reproduced screen image doesn’t convey this.  Nor does it convey the power of the artwork that can provoke an emotional response.  This may explain why people are willing to commit to visiting museums, instead of taking inexpensive virtual tours.

So what does this mean?

The impact of works of art in  public places may well be because of their context, conversely the location is more memorable because of the artwork.  For public art in new developments, the physicality of the buildings and the relationship to works of art within the physical space may change the perception of the development as a whole. The power of the works make it more positively memorable, easier to navigate and more highly appreciated.  It’s an interesting piece of research that supports the power of the moment, the presence of the works in a physical place.


Art affects you more powerfully when you view it in a museum

Brieber, D., Nadal, M., & Leder, H. (2015). In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art Acta Psychologica, 154, 36-42 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2014.11.004