Investigating Art Experience in the Museum

panorama picture of an art exhibition in the museum

panorama picture of an art exhibition in the museum

The last 15 years have seen an exciting renaissance of empirical and theoretical studies investigating the psychological aspects of our fascination with art. This has led to numerous important findings regarding visual, cognitive, emotional, and even neurophysiological experience. Researchers are also increasingly focused on the ability of artworks to evoke particularly intense reactions—chills, awe, anger, disgust, epiphany, conceptual transformations, and crying—that sit as themselves largely under-explored psychological topics.

     At the same time, despite its growth, the psychological study of art faces a major conundrum regarding how and where art is studied, versus where it is actually experienced.

     From the founding of psychology of art as a scientific field (e.g., Fechner, 1876), scholars have generally agreed that a major component of art’s impact and character involves the tangible, immediate, and “real” experience of original artworks. This realization has only grown in recent decades with increasing awareness of the importance of context in aesthetic judgments. That context is often the museum or other gallery space. The amount of (often public) money invested in museums is growing as are the number of blockbuster exhibitions (Leder, 2013) and the growing popularity of art tourism. Along with this comes theoretical and empirical demand for the need to better understand and study the experience of art within the unique setting of the museum (Brieber, Nadal, & Leder, 2015). Scholars argue in fact that current experimental approaches, dominated by laboratory studies, may lead to an understanding that is wholly detached from, or even in opposition to, “real” art experiences (Pelowski, Forster, Tinio, Scholl, & Leder, in press)—an argument that is only now receiving support from empirical research. This may especially be the case for intense or profound reactions that may be almost impossible to evoke with reproduced, lab computer presented art.

      To this end, our laboratory has recently focused our intention on museum art studies. This has been accomplished with the wonderful support of several institutions with and outside of Vienna—the Albertina (put in link?); the Belvedere; MUSA, Kunst Historisches. We are in fact extremely fortunate to make our research in this city, becuase of its rich artistic history and interest in the arts. We have coupled this access with a number of paradigms including behavioral survey of emotional and evaluative experience, mobile and stationary eye tracking, physiological measures, as well as lab-gallery comparisons and theoretical papers suggesting hypotheses for importance of the museum context in appreciating art.


Main published work:

  • Evaluation of real contemporary art photographs (Museum Startgalerie Artothek, MUSA, Vienna) vs. reproductions in lab on computer. Original art more liked, interesting, viewed longer (Brieber et al., 2014.
  • Evaluation of real contemporary paintings, photos, and collages (Museum Startgalerie Artothek, Vienna) vs. computer simulated version of exhibition in laboratory. Original art more arousing, liked, positive, interesting, understood. Participants recalled more artworks if they first viewed a real version (Brieber, Nadal, et al., 2015).
  • Compare interaction of separate factors real art vs. reproductions (Raum mit Licht Gallery, Vienna) and lab vs. museum context. However, in this case physical context (gallery, laboratory) and genuineness (genuine, reproduction) did not show significance, perhaps due to photographic media (Brieber, Leder, & Nadal, 2015).
  • Investigation of transformative reactions to Mark Rothko art (Pelowski et al., 2012; Pelowski, 2015)
  • Investigations of crying with static art (Pelowski, 2015).
  • Before and after comparisons of museum gallery renovation on art experience and importance of social interactions in the gallery space (Pelowski et al., 2014)
  • Study of interaction with installation art: Mobile eye tracking study of Olafur Eliasson’s Baroque Baroque (Leder, Pelowski, Mitschke, Bieg, Husslein-Arco, 2016; and forthcoming)

Ongoing projects 

  • Comparison of emotional reactions to contemporary art styles (Albertina Museum)
  • Followup to context importance of gallery (MUSA)



Brieber, D., Leder, H., & Nadal, M. (2015). The experience of art in museums: An attempt to dissociate the role of physical context and genuineness. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 33, 95-105.

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.

Brieber, D., Nadal, M., Leder, H., & Rosenberg, R. (2014). Art in time and space: Context modulates the relation between art experience and viewing time. PLoS ONE, 9, e99019.

Leder, H. (2013). Next steps in neuroaesthetics: Which processes and processing stages to study? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7, 27-37.

Leder, H., Pelowski, M., Mitschke, V., Bieg, T., Husslein-Arco, A. (2016). Emotion in sun, ring and battlefields! Perceiving Art by Eliasson in the Museum. Poster presented at the 24th Conference of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. Vienna, Austria.

Pelowski, M. (2015). Tears and transformation: Feeling Like crying as an indicator of insightful or ‘aesthetic’ experience in empirical study of art. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1006). 1-23.

Pelowski, M., Akiba, F., & Palacios, V. (2012). Satori, koan and aesthetic experience: Exploring the “realization of emptiness” in Buddhist enlightenment via empirical study of modern art. Psyke and Logos, 33(2), 236-268.

Pelowski, M., Forster, M., Tinio, P., Scholl, M., & Leder, H. (in press). Beyond the Lab: An Examination of Key Factors Influencing Interaction with ‘Real’ and Museum-based Art. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

Pelowski, M., Liu, T., Palacios, V., & Akiba, F. (2014). When a body meets a body: An exploration of the negative impact of social interactions on museum experience. International Journal of Education and the Arts, 15.



Matthew Pelowski

Helmut Leder