|Visitors as Learners: The Role of Emotions
by Caryl Marsh
Do emotions influence learning? Do feelings and attitudes that visitors bring with them influence what they learn in a museum? How important is the visitor's aesthetic response? Do visitors learn more from exhibitions they enjoy and find aesthetically pleasing than from those they dislike?
These and related questions guided my exploration of the literature as a member of the ASTC Learning Research Task Force.
Point of View
My perspective is that of a social psychologist who has worked in science, history, and art museums for 30 years, creating, managing, and studying the effects of exhibitions and programs. As a teenager, I roamed the halls of New York City's major museums. And as a young adult, I did the same in Paris and Rome. The result is a lifelong love of museums that has fueled my subsequent activities.
My first professional encounter with the museum world was in 1966, as advisor to the Smithsonian Institution. The goal was a highly controversial experiment: to create an outreach museum in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighborhood whose African American residents had long felt excluded from major cultural institutions. The outcome was the Anacostia Museum, soon to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
Another outcome was my proposal for the Smithsonian's first completely hands-on exhibit, the Discovery Room in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. The then-head of the Smithsonian Institution, S. Dillon Ripley, was persuaded by his own childhood experiences that museum visitors should have an opportunity to touch and handle museum-quality artifacts. The Discovery Room was to offer guided, independent exploration. The room was also designed to be a place where we might find out whether touching and handling museum artifacts led to increased learning. (It led to great enjoyment and many repeat visitors. The original exhibit has remained popular for more than 20 years and has been widely copied.)
Research on the effects of touching and handling museum artifacts led me to a five-year study of visitor curiosity, and what happens to it in museum settings (Marsh, 1980). In the process of prototyping, and then assessing the effects of, the Anacostia Museum, the Discovery Room, and dozens of other exhibitions and programs—including most recently a 5,000-square-foot hands-on traveling exhibition titled Psychology: Understanding Ourselves, Understanding Each Other—I have observed thousands of visitors of all ages and interviewed hundreds. These experiences, combined with attempts to apply the implications of the research literature, have shaped my views of visitors as potential learners. I see them as unique individuals, engaged in complex mental and physical activities that profoundly influence what they learn from a museum visit. And I think that emotional factors are as important as intellectual ones in the learning process.
Traditionally, museums have viewed visitors as empty vessels, passive receptacles waiting to be filled. Since the 1970s, influenced by the popularity of the Exploratorium and other hands-on museums as well as by research on learning, museums increasingly are viewing visitors as active learners, seeking to explore in their own ways.
As one who has been on the leading edge of efforts to develop exhibits that enable visitors to participate actively in museums, I feel ambivalent towards the current swing of the pendulum so completely to the active-seeker model. For visitors themselves are as they have always been unique individuals. They differ from one another not only in size, shape, age, gender, and cultural, social, and economic background. They also differ from one another in their ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles through creative problem solving. They certainly differ in their emotions, their motivations, their curiosity, and in their abilities and desire to engage as active learners. Some even prefer at times to be guided and to receive information in tidy packets instead of digging it out for themselves. And if tested or interviewed, visitors will differ in what they remember from their museum visit, regardless of what we offer them.
Most of the studies selected for our Field Guide focus exclusively on the intellectual or cognitive processes involved in learning. These studies are essential, but they give only a partial picture of visitors as learners. For a broader, more complete view, we need to see visitors as unique individuals with complex emotional as well as intellectual needs and capacities. The total museum visit can be a complex emotional, as well as intellectual and physical, experience, different for each person. Visitors may feel intrigued or repelled, confident or bewildered, challenged or overwhelmed and more upon entering a museum, walking though the reception areas and merely glimpsing a gallery or exhibit. A multitude of additional perceptions, feelings, and thoughts move into action as the visitor becomes engaged in an exhibit. Searching, thinking, fearing, imagining, remembering, evaluating, planning all of these psychological processes and others may be evoked by the exhibit. These responses may be as varied as the visitors themselves. And the same exhibit may have diametrically opposed psychological implications for different visitors. An exhibit perceived by some as fascinating may be viewed by others as frightening, even repelling.
I want to draw to your attention two studies by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues that describe both emotional and intellectual responses to meaningful learning experiences. These studies suggest some expanded ways to view visitors as potential learners in science museums, and ways to enhance their learning.
Enjoyment and understanding
There is strong evidence that visitors go to museums seeking enjoyment and understanding. These two factors seem to interact in a reciprocal fashion. The more enjoyment, the more likely there will be learning. The increased learning and understanding lead to more enjoyment.
What makes an experience enjoyable? In Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues identified eight major components of the phenomenon of enjoyment. Their findings come from long interviews, questionnaires, and other data gathered over a dozen years from several thousand respondents in the United States and a half a dozen other countries. They use the word "flow" to characterize the total experience. The word describes the person's awareness of complete absorption and pleasure in the experience.
- These are the eight components:
- First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it (Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990, p. 49).
This list of eight components matches almost exactly the replies of visitors interviewed after they have had an enjoyable museum experience. They mention each of the eight items: the pleasure of completing the activities; the concentration on goals; the satisfaction of feedback; the opportunity for exercise of control; and the absence of awareness of the passage of time.
And even when the museum experience has been for the most part very satisfactory, most visitors will also report any negative side of the eight components: the frustrations of activities they were not able to complete; areas of the exhibition where crowds, noise, poor design, or other factors interfered with concentration; instances where feedback was inadequate; where they had no control; or other circumstances that made them aware of time and a desire to leave the exhibition or the museum rather than remain indefinitely (Marsh, C. Interviews of visitors to an exhibition: preliminary analysis. In process).
This list of components which may appear, initially, to be somewhat abstract can be surprisingly useful as a checklist of questions to ask when prototyping exhibit units. For example: Are visitors able to concentrate, complete the task, understand the goals of the exhibit? Are they satisfied with the feedback? Do they feel in control? Have they lost track of time or are they impatient with the task and eager to move on?
These may all seem to be vague, highly subjective factors. Yet, when applied to a specific visitor interacting with a specific exhibit, they become surprisingly concrete. Responses to these questions can lead to specific ways to improve an exhibit, its communication strategies, labels, lighting, seating, over-all design, and other elements.
Some visitors respond primarily to the aesthetic dimension of an exhibit. They are drawn to exhibits they feel are beautiful and well designed. And they shun exhibits that strike them as ugly and chaotic. These comments by a recent visitor to a prominent London museum are not unusual: Asked about her experiences, she exclaimed, "My God, what a dreary museum! It certainly did not invite me to stay." She was also struck by the absurdity of a sign that asked, "How can we help you to see?" Her reply was, "Turn up the lights and make it more inviting!" She mentioned the contrast between "the sordidness" of the London museum and "the ambiance of the East Wing of Washington's National Gallery," which she found "exhilarating."
The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter (Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 1990), gives a careful, detailed description of the aesthetic experience in all of its varieties and richness. The book is a report of a study that sought to get a better understanding of what constitutes an aesthetic experience. The study was initiated by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts as part of its effort to enable more people to derive a more intense enjoyment from the use of their visual faculties.
- Both the method and the results of the study have implications for any museum or science center. The study method was based on several assumptions:
- that subjective interpretation is the key to understanding the aesthetic experience; that most, if not all, people are able to talk about their experiences of subjective states in a coherent fashion; that museum professionals, by virtue of positions and activities, must be sensitive to the esthetic value of objects and aware of the nature of their own responses to such objects; and that letting people talk at length about their experiences was a better way to find out what were the most important components of the experience than asking them to answer any sort of questionnaire that we might design (Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 1990, 21).
Fifty-seven museum professionals, curators, directors, and educators from seventeen different institutions were interviewed by faculty and advanced graduate students from the Committee on Human Development of the University of Chicago. The interviews were semi-structured, took from 55 minutes to 2 1/2 hours, and were tape-recorded. Results were analyzed and are reported in both quantitative and qualitative form. All are relevant to how people learn in museums. The following three findings are especially striking:
1. Descriptions of the content of the aesthetic experience were highly individual, yet their underlying structure was similar. If we separate the viewing experience into three parts—the object, the viewer, and the viewer's subjective experience—the phenomenon is understandable. The subjective experience was described in dimensions very similar to the ones noted above in the "flow" experience. There was the initial perception, a focusing or centering of attention on the object; there was an emotional, often followed by an intellectual, response. Finally, there was a sense of clarity, wholeness, understanding, and pleasure from the experience. Yet, for each person, the object viewed, that is, the content, and the way it was interpreted were different. Yet, all who were interviewed said they thought they had learned something.
2. Those studied stressed the need to bring knowledge and skills to the viewing experience. One needs background information and experience in viewing. The background information people found useful included information about the artists' lives, the time, culture, and places in which they lived, their philosophies and life goals, as well as information about the materials and techniques the artists used to create their works of art. Among the skills the viewer needs, an important one was knowing how to compare and contrast different works of art—to notice similarities and differences, and to know their significance. They mentioned the importance of being able to remember and reflect upon one's own experiences and reactions.
3. The entire experience requires time. For example, some people reported looking at a particular painting or sculpture for as long as 45 minutes. People need time. They need time to study, to explore, to read label copy, to think, to process their experiences, to talk with others about their experiences, to make the connections that may lead to new insights and learning.
I believe the results of Csikszentmihalyi's studies have strong implications for the ways visitors learn in science museums and centers. Our visitors certainly need background information and skills to grasp scientific ideas and their applications to technology.
The need for time seems obvious. Many of us bemoan the shortage of time for ourselves as well as for our visitors. Perhaps those of us who are concerned about the need for time, both for ourselves and for visitors to our museums, will plan time to discuss with each other ways to make time more available. It might be useful, for example, to conduct some studies of the amounts of time visitors need to really understand specific exhibits. Some museums have experimented with ways to encourage repeat visits. Discussion and pooling of strategies might yield new or more effective ones. A place to sit down is a clear invitation to visitors to spend more time at an exhibit.
The authors of the Art of Seeing study hope their investigations "will stimulate discussion and perhaps open up ways of thinking about the aesthetic encounter with a work of art." Might a similar study, one that looked at the role of visitors' emotions, as well as their intellectual processes, provide a more complete view of how visitors learn in science museums?
References and further readings