How to get an emotional response from museum goers

Rebecca Carlsson
Original paper on Museum Next

Toolkit for Emotion in Museums

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.

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.

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