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

These days there’s no need to take the trouble of visiting art museums. You can usually view all the exhibits on your computer, in the comfort of your own home. And yet, attendance at art museums has been rising over recent years. A new study helps explain why: people enjoy art more at the museum, they find it more stimulating and understandable, and they remember it better.

David Brieber 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.

Some of the students first viewed digital reproductions of the exhibits and their information panels on a 24-inch computer screen (a “virtual exhibition”), then a week later they saw the real exhibition at the museum. The students’ ratings after each experience showed that they found the actual art work at the museum more stimulating, positive, and interesting, and they liked it more, compared with the digital reproductions.

A second group did the reverse – they went to the museum first, then a week later looked at the exhibits on computer. Again, they rated the artwork more positively after the museum visit. In fact, their ratings of the virtual exhibits were even lower than the first group. It’s as if the rewarding museum visit undermined the subsequent computerised experience.

A final group never went to the museum – they looked at the virtual exhibition on computer on both occasions. Their ratings were similar both times. They were lower than the ratings made by students after a museum visit, but not as low as the ratings of the virtual exhibition given by students who’d already been to the museum a week earlier.

Another finding concerned the students’ memory of the exhibits. A memory test one week after the first experience of the exhibition (just before the second viewing) revealed that students remembered the artworks better if they’d previously seen them in a museum than on computer. The museum memory benefit seemed to come from the way the students used the physical layout of the exhibition as a mnemonic aid. When they successfully recalled one exhibit, they also tended to remember other pieces nearby.

Taken together, the findings are consistent with theories of situated cognition: “inherently, a mind exists in context,” as Lisa Barrett and her colleagues once wrote. It seems there’s something about the physical space of a museum exhibition that changes how our minds respond to what we’re seeing. This contradicts formalist art theory, the idea that the effects of art upon us are independent of time and place.

Many museum buildings are awesome buildings, acting like cathedrals to the art within them. It remains to be seen how much the nature of building design influences art appreciation. The museum featured in this study is physically impressive – a concrete structure erected in 1916 with a glass-covered interior courtyard. But perhaps any physical space, once designated as a place of art, can accentuate our aesthetic appreciation.

The researchers said: “The improved memory performance and enhanced art experience in the museum underscore the educational potential of museums.” They concluded: “This … explains, at least in part, why people are willing to invest time and resources to visit museums, instead of taking inexpensive virtual tours.”


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

Image: Musa Start Gallery.

further reading
Why you should watch a horror film before going to the art gallery

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.