Interpretive [Contemporary Art] Preferences

Back in 2014, I talked with a group of undergraduates to learn how interactive activities might influence their experience looking at contemporary art. I was especially curious whether museums could leverage these activities to increase self-efficacy when interpreting artworks. Others have been trying to tackle this topic of increasing visitor comfort and confidence; a recent post by Museum Hack offers tips for combating museum anxiety and Museumphiles postulated that some visitors (and non-visitors)  believe museums are scary, whether due to their lack of education, wariness of being reprimanded for inappropriate behavior inside the institution, or their ability to "get" artwork on display.  In my discussions with 71 students, I found support for these claims of anxiety and discomfort making sense of contemporary art while in an art museum. 

In Museum Hack's post, they suggest using entertainment as a means to engagement, since, "on a basic level, it gets guests laughing, comfortable, and moving — and fosters an appreciation and interest that opens the doors for visitors to care about the material and bring their own reverence to the table."  Although their model relies on a tour to provide this type of interpretive support, I wanted to consider the influence of interactive activities incorporated into exhibit spaces.

 This artwork,  2244 M  ódulos  by Isabel Del Rio, was the artwork in the study where participants reported lowest interpretive self-efficacy.

This artwork, 2244 Módulos by Isabel Del Rio, was the artwork in the study where participants reported lowest interpretive self-efficacy.

Students who rarely visit art museums and self-identified as having low experience with art (i.e., are not artists, do not frequently engage with art) participated in a focus group, which included a visit to the Blanton Museum of Art. In quantitative measures, they reported lowest self-efficacy when looking at the artwork pictured above, 2244 Módulos.  Inspired by this piece, focus group participants were presented with following hypothetical interactive activity:

 Originally developed for an event catering to middle school students, instructions asked participants to stack tiles to represent how they split their time over the past week, similar to how the artist stacked clay slabs to represent hours of work in a day. 

Originally developed for an event catering to middle school students, instructions asked participants to stack tiles to represent how they split their time over the past week, similar to how the artist stacked clay slabs to represent hours of work in a day. 

Would visitors participate in an interactive activity? Participants were generally intrigued. The majority (39%) said they would participate with the interpretive activity and a quarter of the group said that they would observe it but not personally interact. Another quarter was unsure, or said they would participate in certain conditions, while the smallest proportion (9%) said they do not like interactive activities.

Why might visitors not participate? Barriers to participation included social stigma, disturbing the gallery environment, and lack of interest in the specific activity. Those who said “it depends,” shared that visiting with a social group or children would lead them to participate more than if they visited alone, that they liked interactives in general but were not interested in the activity that they were shown, or that they would participate if the activity addressed a different artwork.

What are the benefits? Participation was believed to lead to increased understanding of a piece, deeper engagement, and higher interpretive self-efficacy. Likewise, participants said they could see interactives as a way to make works more interesting if aesthetics do not initially draw their attention.

What are the drawbacks? Concerns over negative learning consequences were mostly voiced by those indicating high self-efficacy, arguing that an activity would take away from their ability to formulate personal interpretations. There were also complaints that the activity was futile. These individuals were more interested in participating when there was a take-home product or if they were helping the museum achieve a goal.

I like it. I think it’s interactive. It makes you simulate what the artist was doing and it makes you relate to the art in a different way. It makes you think.
— Focus Group Participant

Learning goals and self-efficacy were generally thought to be supported by the activity; participants considered the activity helpful for contextualizing the work within their personal experience and led them to new questions and considerations about the piece.

Although many appreciated the related, but not replicating nature of the activity, some revealed that an activity which did not directly translate concepts presented on the label would confuse them.  These participants hoped for something that reflects what was written on the label to help them build a solid schema to view the work. Others voiced concern that an interactive activity would not fit in with their concept of an art museum environment. Several spoke of art museums as sterile, cold, quiet, serious spaces not conducive to touching, examining, making, or doing;  these activities were considered more acceptable or comfortable in a science or children’s museum. 

It should be kinda close so you know it goes with that art, but I like how quiet art museums are and you can just be in your own head. If it was right there, people might be joking with their friends and it might distract from the other work.
— Focus Group Participant

Participants offered mixed views on when and where an interactive activity might feel most appropriate. Those who were in favor of encountering the activity before or simultaneously with the work thought it was fundamental to building their conception of the work. They wanted interpretive activities where they would expect to find a label in order to see the work while participating. Others preferred to experience the interpretive activity in a removed, unintegrated space after viewing the piece to maintain the calm, contemplative mood of the existing museum gallery and prevent spoiling initial impressions of the work. They said an interactive space situated at the end of a visit is most useful to review and renew ways of thinking about the piece.

Although mixed perceptions of interactives still reign, most participants were intrigued by the thought of "doing" to enhance looking at the art museum. Clearly, visitor expectations of art museum culture came into play, triggering some apprehension. As museums pursue new routes to engage visitors, finding opportunities for visitors to participate appears to be one way to foster deeper connection and comfort. 

Want to learn more about self-efficacy, interest, and contemporary art? Check out my [Contemporary Art] Study series.