museum visitor preferences and intentions in constructing aesthetic experience

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  • ELSEVIER Poetics 24 (1996) 219-238


    Museum visitor preferences and intentions in constructing aesthetic experience

    Jeffrey K. Smith *, Lisa F. Wolf The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Education, I000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, NY 10028, USA


    Visitors to art museums vary on a number of a dimensions related to how they construct their museum experience. The visiting preferences and intentions of a sample of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art were examined by having them respond to a survey as they entered the Museum. Visitors were presented with a set of nine contrasting statements (e.g., " I know how I like to look at art" and " I would like to learn more about how to look at art".) separated by a six-point scale. Responses to the statement pairs indicated wide variability on items concerning whether visitors liked to look at many works of art in depth, or a few works briefly; whether they preferred to discuss works with others, or look alone; whether they preferred a linear or global organization; whether they wanted to learn more about how to look at art, or felt their skills were adequate. A series of regression equations looked at the relationship of age, education, self-re- ported knowledge of art, and frequency of Museum visitation to responses to the statement pairs. Knowledge of art was consistently the most important predictor.

    1. Introduction

    At a recent senior staf f meet ing at The Metropo l i tan Museum of Art, the ch ie f curator o f European Paint ings made a presentat ion on the acquis i t ion o f a portrait by

    ~" The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Kent Lydecker, Seth Thompson, and Phoebe Park Styron with ediiorial assistance, data collection, and analysis.

    * Correspondence to: Jeffrey K. Smith, Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08903, USA.

    i Also at: Psychology Department, Felician College, Lodi, NJ 07644, USA.

    0304-422X/96/$15.00 1996 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved SSDI 0304-422X(95)00006-2

  • 220 J.K. Smith, L.F. Wolf/Poetics 24 (1996) 219-238

    Delacroix. The work was a realistic painting of a matronly woman of the era; independently, the authors of this article were somewhat surprised at the enthusiasm of the curator for the work. Since neither of us are art historians, but have worked at the Met for over five years, we have learned to withhold judgment on such matters. Over the next twenty minutes we learned that Delacroix may well have been the illegitimate child of Talleyrand; that the matron had essentially raised Delacroix after the death of his parents and that he loved this woman dearly; that apparently Napoleon had also loved her - several decades earlier and in a substantially different context; that Delacroix had prepared the canvas for painting himself (his fingerprints can be seen on the rear of the frame) and somewhat impatiently had commenced painting prior to the complete drying of the preparatory medium, which had given the work a certain luminosity; that unlike most works of the era, this painting has not been transferred to a new canvas and therefore has been spared the ironing process which flattens the paint.

    The presentation transformed the work from one which probably would not have captured the attention of either of us into one which required a very careful look. This event serves as a useful example for considering the experience of an individual in an art museum. When an individual encounters a work of art in a museum, three distinct elements interact to determine the nature of the encounter: the work of art, the presentation in the museum, and the individual. The role of the work of art in this interaction is probably not the proper domain of the social scientist and is certainly well beyond the scope of this research; however, the remaining elements are most appropriate topics for empirical investigation.

    The nature of the presentation of the work of art in the museum has been the focus of museum specialists for a number of years. Vallance considers the art museum to be a "public curriculum of orderly images" (Vailance, 1993: 4); this is a particularly apt metaphor from the perspective of the museum educator. Museum specialists frequently focus on the exhibition, the gallery, and even on the museum as their unit of analysis. As Vallance points out, although the museum will highlight certain important works, the nature of museums engenders a focus on collections of works. The collection forms a curriculum for the visitor, but even with the curriculum provided, the visitor will interpret and define that curriculum according to his or her own needs.

    In a similar vein, Carr sees cultural institutions as structures for cognitive change in individuals (Carr, 1992). Museums, as well as other cultural institutions, are highly ordered organizations with a carefully considered logic in both the presenta- tion of objects and the information which is offered to the visitor. Carr, in agreement with Vallance, states that into this order steps the individual with his or her own background, desires, accumulation of knowledge and experience, and approaches to museum visitation (Cart, 1991).

    What happens when the communicative intent of the artist and of the museum meet the eye of the visitor? Is the potential to transform one's image of oneself realized as Carr (1991) suggests is possible? That is, do individuals leave an art museum thinking differently about themselves as opposed to how they think about art? Does the experience turn into one in which a sense of time and space are given

  • J.K. Smith, L.F. Wolf/Poetics 24 (1996) 219-238 221

    over to the interaction, as is elegantly postulated by Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson (1990)? Does the visitor ultimately undergo a restorative experience which enables h im/her to retum productively to their lives (Kaplan et al., 1993)? Or might it be the case that the visitor makes mental stores of the works which can be returned to later, for leisurely contemplation, an emotional amortization of the aesthetic en- counter?

    These are intriguing possibilities, and several have empirical data which argue for their validity, but they are not the direct concern of the research presented here. Our aims are more modest; we focus in this study on one third of the elements of the aesthetic encounter in museums: the visitor. To better understand what kinds of experiences visitors have in museums, it would be worthwhile to have a better idea of who those visitors are, what their preferences are, and what range of visitors exist.

    In the winter 1994 meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors, Paul DiMaggio and Michael Spock, in different addresses, summarized much of the state of current knowledge about visitors to art museums. Reporting results from the National Endowment for the Arts survey, "Arts Participation in America: 1982- 1992" (Robinson, 1994), DiMaggio (this volume) informed the museum directors as to what we know about the visiting public. What we know is substantial, enlightening, and pleasantly counterintuitive at a number of turns. To begin, the proportion of Americans visiting art museums has increased from 1982 to 1992. Not only is visitation up overall, it is also up among men, visitors age 18-24, and African Americans. Analysis of these data further reveals that the art museum visitor is not so different from the general public in regard to a variety of cultural, religious, and moral attitudes. The findings from this research, particularly with regard to the demographics, echo other studies, both at the national and regional levels (Harris, 1992; Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 1993), and at individual institutions (e.g., Smith and Wolf, 1993; Brunner, 1994).

    Spock (1994) provided a counterpoint to DiMaggio by exploring what we do not know about art museum visitors, in particular what we do not know about them as they enter the museum. Just as our knowledge base is substantial and impressive, so is our ignorance base. Although we know who our visitors are, we have little idea of what they will do as they walk in the door, or what their preferences are for what they will find in the museum, or how they will find it. Do they want to look at art alone, or discuss it with others? Do they prefer a linear organization in exhibitions, or a more holistic or global presentation? Are they concrete thinkers, or abstract thinkers? What kinds of museums do they prefer to visit?

    To pose the questions presented above does not mean that there has been no research of a behavioral or psychological orientation on museum visitors. Indeed, research on fatigue in museums can be found as early as 1916, before the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the American Museum of Natural History had celebrated their fiftieth birthdays (Gilman, 1916). A series of studies were con- ducted in the late twenties and early thirties by Melton and Robinson (Melton, 1933, 1935; Robinson, 1928, 1930, 1931). Melton's work focused on the relationship between the physical environment of the museum, the layout of exhibitions, and

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    visitor behavior. Robinson studied museum fatigue and the holding power of various exhibit designs.

    Current research in the field which has come to be known as "visitor studies" has examined visitor demographics (e.g., Bitgood, 1986; Hood, 1983), the evalua- tion of exhibition effectiveness (e.g., Borun, 1977; Griggs, 1984; Oestreicher, 1986), and efforts to examine learning in museums (e.g., Chase, 1975; Screven, 1990). This work is growing and making a strong contribution to theoretical development as well as practice in museums. Given these efforts, it may be somewhat surprising that Sp