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How to get an emotional response from museum goers

If art and culture is all about connecting with an audience, then what can museums do to cement this relationship? Is it a case of simply displaying exhibits of interest or is there more to it?

Nobody can deny that museums provide us with a rich seam of educational content. Museums provide the opportunity to enhance knowledge on a variety of subjects using a wide range of historical, contemporary and even future-thinking sources.

The real challenge of a museum exhibition is to evoke an emotional as well as an intellectual response. By tapping into a visitor’s heart as well as their head, curators and interpretive planners can expect their efforts to stay with people for longer, enhance their experience and encourage museum-goers to make a recommendation to their friends and family.

But the relationship between museums and emotion can be a tricky one to balance. We’re going to take a closer look at how museums can and do affect their visitors on a deeper level.

The powerful relationship between art and emotion

Emotional responses are nothing new to art, of course. Indeed, one might point out that the very purpose of art is to tap into our emotions. Art can tell us a story that evokes a feeling; it can reflect an experience we’ve had ourselves but have never seen made physical. Even the most abstract of pieces can make us feel joyful, sad, uncomfortable or simply overwhelmed.

Whether it’s Munch’s The Scream or Klimt’s The Kiss, we’ve all experienced an emotional response to a piece of art. In fact, research suggests that viewing aesthetically pleasing art activates areas of the brain also associated with experiencing and processing emotions.

The recent ‘Bacon en toutes lettres’ exhibition in Paris’ Centre Pompidou refrained from any videography, writing or interaction in their displays, choosing instead to simply present the artwork and let the viewers explore their own responses to what was presented in front of them.

So, of all art museums, those showcasing works of art have little to do other than let valuable works speak for themselves, right?

Not necessarily. While it can be argued that the very best artworks or artefacts need little or no adornment, there’s no room for complacency in a museum. Fail to tug on the heartstrings and an exhibition can easily come across as lacklustre . . . or, worse, boring.

The Museum of Feelings – keeping emotions ‘under control’

At the other end of the spectrum to the Centre Pompidou’s Francis Bacon exhibition, you can find something like the Museum of Feelings. This pop-up museum did the rounds back in 2015 and claimed to be “the first museum that reacts to emotions – and turns them into art”.

The exhibition was made up of five themed alcoves, each with its own distinct colour scheme and smell. The ‘Optimistic Room’ was coated in pink and purple, while the ‘Joyful Room’ was a dense jungle of green LED lights. Elsewhere, the museum relied on light tricks, audience participation, 3D effects, smoke and mirrors, and fragrance to evoke emotions.

This is an interesting example of emotions within a museum setting. Not only did the Museum of Feelings serve to appeal to all of the senses; it also took visitors on a journey, guiding them through a series of emotions as people moved from one space to the next. This is in stark contrast to the Parisian exhibition of Bacon’s work.

Creating an environment that encourages emotion

As the Museum of Feelings demonstrates, the way that an exhibit plays on one’s senses has a crucial role in generating emotion. Light, sound, smells, textures and even tastes can all enhance the bond between installation and visitor. Everything down to the size of the room and acoustics in a space can have a dramatic effect on the experience – helping to make an exhibit feel more grand and imposing or calm and intimate.

This is a challenge and responsibility that faces interpretive planners each time they begin to map out the look and feel of an installation. As is stated in the white paper, Developing a Toolkit for Emotion in Museums.

“Humans are emotional animals. Whether exhibition developers plan for emotion or not, every visitor brings their feeling self to the museum; it cannot be separated from the thinking self. Indeed, social science research suggests we wouldn’t even want to try, that emotions actually help us learn more effectively.”

One approach to the conceptual design phase of a new exhibition is to generate an emotional map, documenting how visitors will move through an installation or collection in time. Of course, consideration also needs to be given to how varying visitor numbers might impact on the overall experience. After all, a quiet day at a museum provides plenty of time for quiet contemplation whereas a crowded gallery full of jostling tourists will undoubtedly change the dynamic. For this reason, managing space, positioning, visitor flow and many other environmental factors is part and parcel of this particular challenge.

What makes an exhibition emotional?

Before putting a plan in place for generating an emotional response, it’s important to identify what that desired emotion may be – anger, fear, disgust, sadness, happiness perhaps. Of course, the end result is almost always going to be a nuanced combination of emotions but the point still stands that a clear intent needs to be there from the outset.

For some museums, the route to an emotional response is simpler and more straightforward than others. Take the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This institution stands on the site of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, and acts as a memorial to the 1.1 million people who died there.

For the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, emotional response is guaranteed, no intervention necessary. The purpose of the museum is not only to educate visitors on the facts of the Nazi campaign, but to provide a space to reflect on the unspeakable atrocities that occurred within the museum’s grounds.

For other museums and art galleries, evoking emotion can require a more proactive approach. Feeling strong emotions from simply looking at an artwork can work for iconic pieces like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, but most visitors won’t be familiar with the vast majority of pieces in a collection. To expect a strong emotional response from looking alone could be considered a touch idealistic. Perhaps inviting greater participation can help to cement an exhibition more firmly in visitors’ heads and hearts.

Experimenting and exploring new ways to provoke an emotional response is an exciting challenge for museums. And it will undoubtedly play a significant role as institutions fight to stay relevant in the 21st century. Engaging with the public and having cultural value is, after all, about winning both hearts and minds.

Interested in joining us to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing museums over the coming years? Explore our events calendar here for all our latest conferences.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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