The walls do speak: Psychological aesthetics and the museum experience

Pablo P.L. Tinio, Jeffrey K. Smith, Lisa F. Smith

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Each year approximately 5 million individuals visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They gaze upon works of artistic genius from all over the world and from four millennia. At the same time, about 500 people visit the Waikouaiti Coast Heritage Centre in the South Island of New Zealand. They gaze upon firemen’s helmets, Māori artifacts and the architectural drawings for the Lunatic Asylum at Seacliff. These two institutions are antipodean in terms of location, size, collection and attendance. One might even reasonably question whether most of the objects in Waikouaiti are art. And yet these institutions have a kinship they are important to their communities they collect and preserve items of significance and the people who walk out of them are different from when they entered. In this chapter, we review the research on why people go to art museums, what they do while they are there and how their direct interactions with original art impact their lives. We experience art in many aspects of our lives – the paintings on our walls, the sculptures in public spaces, the photographs on billboards, the freestyle poetry read in bars, and in the movies, music, books and plays we enjoy. But it is in the concert hall or theater or museum that art takes center stage. For the visual arts, it is on museum walls and in gallery spaces that artworks are experienced in a formal way. As seemingly conventional a context that a museum is for experiencing visual art, it has been less conventional a locale for investigating the psychology of art and aesthetics. This has been the case since the early works of Gustav Theodor Fechner (1876), who is usually credited with establishing the empirical study of art and aesthetics. Thus, for over a century, the white walls of the laboratory have dominated the white walls of the museum as the environment for learning about why the artifacts that we call art have such significance in our lives and why the aesthetic experiences of art are some of the most memorable and personally meaningful of human experiences (Carr, 2003 Pelowski and Akiba, 2011 Smith and Smith, 2001 Smith and Wolf, 1996).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Aesthetics and the Arts
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781139207058
ISBN (Print)9781107026285
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2015


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