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Modern Art More Likely to Stir the Heart

Why do people visit art museums? The answer depends on the type of art on display.
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Viewing works of art engages both the mind and heart. But whether a museum visit is primarily an intellectual or an emotional activity depends upon the type of art on display, and the era in which it was created.

That's the conclusion of a study from the University of Rome, just published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. The research team, led by Stefano Mastandrea, reports that visitors to a museum housing ancient art tended to describe their experience in cognitive terms, while those at a modern art museum were more likely to report they were emotionally engaged.

The researchers surveyed 137 visitors to two lesser-known art museums in the city of Rome: The Braschi, which features work from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s, and the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, which contains work dating from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Participants leaving the museums filled out questionnaires in which they described their motivation for visiting that day and answered questions designed to determine what personality profile they fit into.

The majority of visitors at both museums were women, although those at the modern art museum were on average 10 years younger than those at the ancient art museum. Education levels at the two locations were quite similar.

Asked their motives for visiting the museum, visitors at both institutions gave similar answers: The top reason was either "interest in the artists" or "to see the artworks in the original." More interesting were the second-most-frequent responses: At the modern art museum, patrons listed "the pleasure they feel during their visit," while at the ancient art museum, they chose "the desire for cultural enrichment."

Members of both groups scored high on the personality trait "openness to experience," but those at the modern art museum scored significantly higher on the "sensation-seeking" trait. When presented with a list of 10 emotions and asked which of them were elicited by their visit, they scored higher on every one than their counterparts who had viewed 17th- and 18th-century art.

"People who go to modern art museums are willing to go in search of sensation more than people who go to ancient art museums," the researchers conclude.

The good news for museum administrators is that no matter whether they were in search of intellectual or emotional stimulation, the vast majority of visitors reported they were satisfied with their experience. "Whether ancient or modern art museum," the researchers write, "they liked their visit very much."

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