Do art museums give enough importance to the well-being of visitors?


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By design, art museums are meant to showcase beautiful objects and their creators, provide insight into history, and inspire wonder and awe. A recent study by Katherine Cotter and James Pawelski of Penn found that people who visit art museums experience a range of benefits.

But when it comes to visitor well-being, how do art museum professionals think their institutions are faring?

To find out, Cotter and Pawelski recruited and interviewed more than 200 curators, educators, researchers, security guards, exhibit designers and others working in art museums. These professionals select works of art to exhibit, organize tours and workshops, carry out marketing and community outreach activities, work at the reception desk, take tickets, etc. “We’re not art museum professionals ourselves,” says Pawelski, “so we wanted to make sure we were really listening to their views, needs, and recommendations.”

In the magazine Empirical Studies of the ArtsCotter and Pawelski share that, in general, these professionals want to see art museums put more emphasis on human flourishing and see their institutional mission evolve in that direction, but also feel that their institutions are ill-equipped. to achieve this.

“When we asked these professionals how they thought they were doing versus what they should be doing, the biggest gap was related to well-being,” says Cotter, the paper’s lead author. “Some of the other shortcomings relate to creating space for community engagement and social interaction, where people can challenge their worldview.”

This work is part of the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project, located at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center. Since 2014, “we have focused on establishing positive humanities as a strong area of ​​interdisciplinary research and practice; we work collaboratively to understand, evaluate, and advance the well-being effects of engagement in the arts and humanities,” says Pawelski. “One area we are developing is in the visual arts, particularly in the context of museums.”

Under this umbrella came the discoveries the team published on the subject in December 2021, a review of the literature conducted by Cotter showing the mood-boosting effects of visiting art museums. From there, she came up with the idea of ​​investigating the people who work in these places, a novel approach to getting inside the heads of these experts.

“The project had two main goals,” says Cotter. “One was to understand how art museums conceive of well-being in their space, particularly in relation to other purposes such as collecting and exhibiting art, researching art, preserving art, providing educational opportunities, etc. The second was to see what factors of the visit itself they felt would have the most impact on well-being. do you do in the museum or how can you engage in art that will be conducive to well-being and fulfilment?”

The survey focused on well-being and ill-being outcomes. Many of the 208 participants had worked in museums for 10 years or more, and they ranged in age from 21 to 79, with a median age of 40. More than three quarters were women.

Participants first rated the importance of a set of art museum functions, then for 16 well-being outcomes – for example, autonomy or self-esteem – rated the likelihood that the visiting an art museum improves each, even temporarily. They also assessed how important it is for an art museum to prioritize these components and to what extent art museums are able to do so.

On the discomfort side, participants rated 16 components such as mental illness, stress, negative emotions and anxiety. Here they also determined the likelihood that visiting an art museum would reduce these negative feelings, even temporarily, as well as whether museums should prioritize this and whether they had the tools to make it happen.

According to the survey, art museum professionals tend to see their world in two categories: one focused on art, the other focused on community. “People thought they could get a little better in things they thought they were doing well, like research and art exhibition,” Cotter said. “But often they wanted to focus less on name-date-place things, on art history as a primary mission, and more on what they can do to situate themselves and benefit the community. “

Cotter and Pawelski say they believe these results point to a larger trend. “There is a real shift underway as art museums reflect on their role in the world and a new openness and dedication to well-being,” says Pawelski. After collecting their data in the spring and early summer of 2021, they speculate that the pandemic played some role in this thinking, although this is difficult to analyze specifically. In the future, the researchers plan to develop and test resources that art museums can then implement.

“We want to go beyond just seeing art museums as places where we can alleviate mental illness or physical illness, isolation, loneliness or depression,” Pawelski said. “As important as these findings are, we also want to think about how art museums can foster positive elements of human flourishing such as resilience, empathy, growth, openness, fear, courage, fairness, deep connections with others and community. cohesion.”

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More information:
Katherine N. Cotter et al, Flourishing Goals of Art Museums: A Survey of Art Museum Professionals, Empirical Studies of the Arts (2022). DOI: 10.1177/02762374221118528

Provided by the University of Pennsylvania

Quote: Do art museums give enough importance to the well-being of visitors? (2022, September 8) retrieved September 13, 2022 from

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