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The Secrets of Emotion

Category: Museum Magazine

Psychological science offers myriad opportunities for measuring emotional responses to the museum experience.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

When observing museum visitors looking at artifacts and interacting with an exhibition, we often imagine what is going on in their minds. We hope that they are having a meaningful experience in which they are interested, engaged, and intellectually stimulated, that the expectations for their visit are being met, and that they are having a generally positive experience.

Important “big questions” related to these desirable outcomes include: To what extent do meaningful experiences take place? When visitors leave a museum, in what significant ways are they different than when they entered? What deep connections have they made with the ideas and artifacts to which they were introduced? What emotional experiences were provoked by what they saw, heard, or touched?

Although these questions are of vital interest to museums, they are also questions that the field of psychology has wrestled with throughout its long history. From psychology, there is a lot to learn about the factors that could hinder or facilitate the desired outcomes of a museum experience. Although some museums have already started importing psychological theories and methods into their practices, they are still in the minority.

Psychology, as an established scientific field, has a great deal to say about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are part of a museum experience. In fact, psychology of aesthetics, the second oldest sub-area within psychology, has been tackling questions about aesthetic experiences since the late 1800s. Therefore, when audiences interact with objects or installations, we can draw from more than a century’s worth of psychological research to help us understand their behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.

Emotions in Museums

Emotions are some of the least understood aspects of the human experience. They are also some of the most talked about, especially as they relate to the visitor experience. A lighthearted and playful exhibition might promote feelings of happiness, enjoyment, satisfaction, wonderment, and surprise, while a more somber one might bring about feelings of sadness, melancholy, and fear. When a program or exhibition fails to match visitors’ expectations, or goes against their beliefs, they might feel disappointment, regret, irritation, contempt, embarrassment, and even anger.

Capturing these emotions in the museum is not a simple matter, which is one reason we do not have a good understanding of the types and intensities of emotions that visitors experience in museums. The biggest limiting factor here is related to methodology. The most straightforward approach to measuring emotions is to simply ask people how they feel after looking at or experiencing something. This can be done verbally through an interview or in writing through an open-ended question in a survey. Both are common approaches. But both are fraught with problems.

Psychology tells us that although people are quite good at communicating feelings of happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, or anger—formally referred to as basic emotions—people struggle to communicate more nuanced and less common emotions, the kinds of emotions that museum audiences often feel, such as nostalgia and awe. These more nuanced and less common emotions are important because they may be what differentiate experiences in museums (and cultural institutions, in general) from those experienced in other contexts.

One of the lessons learned from psychology is that in daily life, feelings of anger, contempt, and scorn could lead to negative and, at times, criminal behavior. Museums are safe spaces for experiencing these emotions. Just as visitors should be challenged intellectually, they should also have the opportunity to experience the full range of emotions—including happiness and sadness, but also wonderment, nostalgia, remorse, pity, compassion, repulsion, disgust, contempt, and scorn—in a safe, neutral, and nonconsequential environment. However, even when these emotions occur, it can be challenging for an individual to verbalize them.

Emotion Heat Maps

To understand the emotions people experience at art exhibitions and when interacting with individual objects within those exhibitions (a specific painting, sculpture, artifact, or installation), my colleagues and I have used emotion heat maps, as seen in the figures at right. Instead of asking people to say or write how they feel, we present them with an emotion map that they use to specify the primary emotions they felt as well as the intensity of those emotions. Compared to a questionnaire or interview, the emotion heat map is less cognitively burdensome for visitors, less dependent on communication skills, and less time-consuming. It also promotes the reporting of more nuanced emotions.


The emotion heat maps—adapted from Klaus Scherer’s influential work on measuring emotions and created using a statistical process that my colleagues and I developed—compile visitors’ emotional experiences within a two-dimensional visual space. Simply stated, the larger and “hotter” the area of color is on a heat map, the higher the number of visitors who reported experiencing the particular types of emotions associated with that area—and the more intense those emotional experiences were in relation to an exhibition or a specific object.Decorative

Our approach circumvents the verbal reporting issue and allows us to present complex, nuanced, and significant findings in a scientifically and methodologically rigorous, intuitive, and visually captivating way. Past and ongoing emotion heat map research, in the lab and in the field—for example, at the Whitney Museum of American Art—has produced some interesting findings about the emotional experiences of museum visitors. Those studies focused on discovering whether visitors actually experience the intended emotional characteristics of exhibitions and objects—what we call emotion affordance. Exhibitions, installations, and objects elicit distinct emotional responses and thus have distinct emotion affordances.

For example, emotion affordances could be generally positive and lighthearted or somber and serious. For the studies, affordances were determined based on historical records about the art and artists’ statements and writings about the works. In our studies, we also focused on determining if visitors generally have similar feelings toward an exhibition or art object or if their feelings tend to be very varied. Following are some of our findings using the emotion heat map method:

  • There are correspondences between the expected emotion affordances of objects and exhibitions and the emotional experiences that people reported after interacting with these objects and exhibitions. For example, for one painting with a nostalgic theme, visitors reported nostalgia as one of the primarily felt emotions, even without knowing about the nostalgic theme of the painting. Our findings suggest that empathy might underlie the correspondences between the emotion affordances and the emotions that visitors reported experiencing, as if they were empathizing with the artists through the artworks. Similar results were found when the stimulus was an individual work, an installation, or an entire exhibition.
  • Visitors generally report similar types and intensities of emotions when interacting with an exhibition or object. This suggests that visitors have similar emotional responses even when they have unique life histories, personalities, belief systems, moods, and expectations. Regardless of our individual and unique lived experiences, we share a similar empathic response.
  • More time in the galleries was associated with more intense emotional experiences.
  • The more art-related knowledge visitors had, the more intense their emotional experiences.
  • Visitors who read textual information (wall texts, labels) reported more intense emotional experiences.
  • Intensity of emotional experiences was positively associated with reflection about one’s life and place in society.

The studies demonstrate the efficacy of the emotion heat map approach for capturing the nuances and intensities of visitors’ emotional reactions in museums. The results also suggest that museums could facilitate their audiences’ emotional experiences by carefully considering the emotion affordances of what they are presenting.

The Role of Time

The emotion heat map is just one approach that makes full use of psychological theories, research methods, and statistical techniques to inform museum practices. Another important finding is related to time.

Before we dig deeper into this area, let us again consider that strong emotions, self-reflection, deep learning, and even personal transformation are potential, and often desired, outcomes of a museum visit. In light of this, when asked to estimate the amount of time visitors spend looking at individual works in an art museum, most people, including museum professionals, guess one, maybe two minutes, or even longer.

Also, as we found in the emotion heat map studies, more engagement time is associated with more intense emotional experiences. Therefore, the results of our empirical testing of average time spent viewing an artwork are surprising.

In studies conducted at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, my colleagues Jeffrey and Lisa Smith (pioneers in this type of research) and I found that most visitors spend about 15 to 30 seconds looking at individual artworks. In addition, very few works received more than a minute of attention, and most received no more than glimpses and glances.

These studies have been replicated with similar results in other museums with different types of collections and in different countries, which raises an interesting question: How could a 30-second interaction with an artifact produce meaningful outcomes and complex and powerful emotions in visitors?

The answer might lie in what we have assumed, yet have not been able to validate empirically: the effects of individual works, artifacts, displays, and exhibitions are additive. By the time visitors exit the museum, they bear the cumulative effects of everything they have seen, heard, touched, read, pondered, and, of course, felt.

Methods of Psychological Science

The use of research instruments and methods to measure audience satisfaction, enjoyment, and learning outcomes have become fairly standard in museum and audience participation research. Many museums have entire units dedicated to audience and impact research and have formal assessment and evaluation systems that inform their programming and practices and identify where improvements and resources might be needed. Collecting and using such data has become more commonplace.

In recent years, however, the demand for more and better data has increased tremendously. Museums are now being asked to demonstrate not only that their audiences leave the museum content and satisfied, but also that their experiences in the museum impacted them in a meaningful and lasting way.

The field of psychology holds the theories and methods that could help museums gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of what their visitors think and feel and how they are directly impacted by their visit. In the past decade, the field of psychology has increasingly focused on authentic field-based methods and instruments. In other words, psychological scientists have ventured outside the lab.

More than ever, museums now have the opportunity to import to their practices and spaces the methods of psychological science. These include state-of-the art observation techniques, more valid and sensitive surveys, technology that objectively collects data on visitor behavior, and much more. (See “How We Track Emotional Response” sidebar at left.)

My colleagues and I have spent the past decade bringing into the museum the techniques that we have used effectively in the lab, such as eye-movement tracking, emotion heat maps, and powerful analytic techniques for deriving actionable information from data. By using such methods, museums can tap into latent visitor responses that are largely beyond the reach of traditional surveys, questionnaires, and interviews.

We now have the ability to measure emotions, thought processes, and moment-to-moment reactions about what visitors are seeing. Continued collaboration between museum professionals and psychological scientists can significantly increase our understanding of museum audiences and the best ways to serve them.

How We Track Emotional Response

The following research tools from psychology have been used in museum settings.


  • Direct observations
  • Surveys and questionnaires
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups


  • Emotion heat maps (e.g., engagement, arousal, emotions, empathy)
  • Think-aloud protocol (e.g., thought processes, emotions, information processing, general behavior)
  • Bluetooth proximity sensor (e.g., visitor movement, attention)
  • Eye-movement tracking (e.g., attention, engagement, visitor movement, general behavior)
  • Skin conductance (e.g., arousal, engagement, stress)
  • Heart rate and heart rate variability (e.g., arousal, engagement, stress)
  • Blood pressure (e.g., stress, fatigue, recovery, arousal)


Pablo P. L. Tinio and Jeffrey K. Smith, The Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Aesthetics and the Arts, 2014

Jeffrey K. Smith, The Museum Effect, 2014

Pablo P. L. Tinio, Ph.D., is department chair of Educational Foundations and head of the Creativity and Aesthetics Lab at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

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1 Comment

  1. I was struct by the article’s emphasis on “engagement” specifically “touch.” As a Docent at Old Mission Santa Barbara, involving touch, like replicas of tools for example, engages 4th graders. They are interested in learning by using rather than telling them how items were used.

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