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EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 1
The art of display: how exhibition context influences the
appreciation of artworks in museums
Swaboda, Clara BA
Postgraduate student at École du Louvre, Paris (France) and University of Heidelberg (Germany)
This paper is a condensed version of my master thesis submitted at École du Louvre, Paris in the
discipline of Museum Studies.
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 2
The museum represents an environment that is most associated with art experience. In today’s
museum landscape, visitors encounter diverse curatorial concepts. This observation suggests that
context matters in the experience of artworks in museums. The present study thus investigated
the appreciation of two similar artworks in two different exhibition contexts. Real museum
visitors were asked to evaluate the architectural and design features of the room, as well as the
perceived harmony between the exhibited artworks on 7-point Likert-type scales. In a second
phase, they rated their art experience with the particular painting, measured with the items
memory, liking, interest, understanding, arousal, and valence, on 7-point Likert-type scales. We
found that the more a visitor appreciated the presentation and the selection of artworks, the more
he appreciated the specific painting. The number of artworks exhibited and their coherence in
terms of size had an impact on the capacity to remember the specific painting. One of the two
exhibition contexts scored higher on nearly every rating scale. Therefore, the present study gives
evidence that exhibition design and display of artworks has an impact on how we see artworks in
Keywords: art, museum, context, display, design, architecture, art appreciation, aesthetic
experience, psychology of art, perception, environmental psychology
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 3
The art of display: how exhibition context influences the appreciation of artworks in museums
A work of art is self-contained and isolated from its context. The impact of a painting has
little to do with the wall on which it is hung […]. (Berlyne, 1971)
The idea that art is perceived independent from its context goes back to the formalist
approach dominating the discourse about art throughout the twentieth century (Brieber et al.,
2015). With the emergence of museum studies a couple of decades ago, the impact of different
curatorial concepts gained interest and paved the way for an interdisciplinary and systematic
research on environmental factors in art experience. Researchers in the field of empirical
aesthetics today emphasize the importance of environmental aspects, which had been longtime
ignored in the psychological study of art. For instance Leder et al., who claim: “Factors related to
the presentational context may mark the most overlooked and potentially most fruitful area for
future research on psychology of art” (Leder et al., 2017). Previous studies found that museum
context enhances the appreciation of art compared to laboratory setting (Grüner et al., 2019;
Specker et al. 2017; Brieber et al., 2015; Locher et al., 1999), that contextual constraints and
specificities impact cognition and affective reactions (Blaison and Hess, 2016; Olivia and
Torralba, 2007) and that the physical environment influences mood and performance (Quartier et
al., 2014; Dijkstra et al., 2008). Despite the burgeoning interest in context related cognition,
studies focused, to our knowledge, exclusively on a museum/laboratory design, rather than
considering specific choices of art display. In light of the wide range of curatorial approaches,
from the white-cube trying to eliminate any disturbing factors, thus creating the most neutral
environment possible, to the atelier-museums or collectors mansions aiming to revive the spirit
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 4
of a certain period of history, we presume that display indeed has an impact on the visitors
experience and maybe even on art appreciation.
Object recognition. Research in cognitive sciences has proven that context is more than
an accumulation of distractors hindering the recognition of a specific object (Olivia and Torralba,
2007). On the contrary, objects that constitute a scene are rich sources of information and can
even facilitate the detection of an object. Whether an object is easily detectable or not depends on
the perceived coherence of the environment defined by semantic (presence of the object, position
and size) and physical aspects (consistent support and interposition with other objects) (Olivia
and Torralba, 2007).
Environmental appreciation. Not all individuals judge their environment the same way,
this is because environmental appreciation is rather determined by previous individual
experiences (Cassidy, 1999). The categories of coherence, legibility, complexity, mystery, and
novelty form a useful framework for describing environmental features and their reception
Information charge of environment. The affective responses, in the form of pleasure
and arousal, depend largely on the over- or undercharge of the environment which trigger
opposite emotions (Mehrabian and Russell, 1974). A highly charged environment will make a
person feel stimulated and aroused, whereas an undercharged context will lead to emotions such
as calm or even somnolence (Donovan, 1982). The optimal degree of environmental charge is
based on personal aspects. Therefore, Mehrabian and Russell distinguish between screeners,
individuals that are able to reduce the charge of information, and non-screeners, who are less
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 5
selective and more sensible to stimuli emitted by the environment (Mehrabian and Russell,
Assimilation/contrast model. The assimilation/contrast model describes when and why
target objects are judged as being more approached or removed from contextual objects than they
actually are (Arielli, 2012). An assimilation effect occurs when context stimuli are so close to the
target stimulus in a specific dimension that they become confused. On the one hand, assimilation
effects take place when both stimuli are perceived as belonging to the same entity (Arielli, 2012).
On the other hand, the judgement of contrast occurs when target and contextual stimuli have
sufficiently similar properties in one dimension that allows a comparison, while differing in
another specific dimension, which favors the perceived difference between the two objects
“Collative” properties of art. When “collative” properties of art, such as novelty,
surprise, complexity and ambiguity are put together, they have arousal potential (Berlyne, 1971).
The effect of novelty occurs when an individual detects similarities or differences with what he
has seen right before. Reactions on complexity and ambiguity are produced by the comparison of
different aspects that are present at the same moment. The effect of novelty refers to the
subjective judgement on familiarity or unfamiliarity with a certain aesthetic configuration
(Berlyne, 1971). According to the mere exposure effect, unfamiliarity is reduced if the person is
repeatedly confronted to the same stimulus (Berlyne, 1971). Whether surprise is judged positive
or negative, depends on the predictability of surprise in a certain situation. Therefore, an
individual that expects to be surprised, for instance if he visits a museum where he will
encounter complex artworks, will judge surprise as more pleasing. The effect of complexity is
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 6
linked to the number of elements and their redundancy as well as how these elements are
grouped. Thus, a high level of redundancy is judged as more “prägnant” (Berlyne, 1971).
Aesthetic processing model. Within the last decade of research on the perception of art,
several models to explain primarily cognitive processing have been developed (Pelowski et al.,
2016). Even though every model focuses on specific aspects of informational processes, inputs
or outputs, they share the same fundamental approach, involving input from the visual stimuli as
well as contextual information, processing mechanisms in several stages and output on a mental
and behavioral level (Pelowski et al., 2016). Two models are considered particularly interesting
for this study: the model of aesthetic judgment and appreciation of Leder et al. and the
appraisal/emotion model of Silvia. The first model is insofar interesting as it focuses on a precise
characterization and distinction of successive processing stages, including pre-classification,
perceptual analysis, implicit memory integration, explicit classification, cognitive mastering,
evaluation and aesthetic judgement as well as aesthetic emotion (Leder et al., 2004). The strength
of the model lies in the idea of cognitive mastering as repeated feedback-loops to reduce
ambiguity and the fact that it insists on the interdependence of affective and cognitive
functioning during the whole process as well as the distinction of two distinct types of outputs
(Leder et al., 2004). In addition to this model, Silvia concentrates on the later stages of visual
processing and especially on the output where he distinguishes evaluation, emotion and body
response as well as long term impact such as creating meaning and self-adjustment (Pelowski et
al., 2016; Silvia, 2005).
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 7
The present study
Environmental psychology suggests that perception and recognition of a target object is
influenced by the properties of its environment. It therefore seems interesting to study the
perception of a distinct artwork in two different exhibition contexts, a highly contextualized
environment vs. a highly decontextualized environment. In so doing, we presume that (a) the
more a person appreciates the presentation, the more he appreciates the artwork and (b) one of
the exhibition contexts favors art appreciation more than the other one.
For the present study, 200 visitors (102 women) were recruited. The participants were
randomly chosen among the visitors of both museums and naturally formed two groups (of 100
participants in each case) according to the museum they were visiting. They participated
voluntarily without any return. In comparison to several studies in empirical aesthetics, that
preferably recruit students in exchange for course credits, the choice of conducting a study with
“authentic” visitors presumably allows for a broader insight in art experience and behavior of
visitors in museums.
Context. The two museums chosen as different settings for the present study are
comparable according to the period covered by the exhibited artworks (both presenting a high-
quality collection of eighteenth-century French painting) but differ clearly in the view of
architectural characteristics and constraints as well as curatorial choices (Table 1).
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 8
2nd floor of Sully wing, directly under the roof, most
distant part from the entrance under the pyramid (10 to 15
minutes, climbing up several staircases)
Oblong, spacious room, gallery style
Linear series of similar gallery rooms, doorways on the
short sides of the room
Paint in a medium gray
Natural skylight equally diffused on the walls and faint
No restriction aside from two benches in a sober design
placed in the center of the room
Labels with technical information in French and English
next to the artworks, information sheets on specific topics
in French, English, Italian, Spanish, German and Chinese
Medium to big size paintings, mix of religious,
mythological and genre paintings as well as portraits
and still lifes, covering a period from 1704 to 1767
Grouping of 4 to 5 paintings according to aesthetic
concerns, display in two rows
Surrounded by larger paintings (from Boucher and other
artists), portraits of personalities from the époque and
historical painting, different artistic approaches
according to brush stroke and coloring
2nd floor of hôtel de Donon (former private residence),
small distance from the entrance (3-5 minutes)
Among the largest rooms of the building, but residential
Relatively low ceiling
Apartment-like distribution of the adjoining rooms,
multiple wall openings (windows and doors)
Dark brown wood-paneled walls from the 18th century
Spotlights on the objects and ambient light from a
Determined by a set of mechanic tables placed as
centerpiece, display cabinets and an ensemble of furniture
placed near the walls
Text panel on the artist Boucher in French and English,
no labels next to the artworks but a room plan with
technical information on the objects in French and
Medium to small size paintings, furniture, and small
decorative objects in the display cabinets, paintings
representing portraits, genre and mythological scenes,
covering a period from 1730 to 1770
Alternation of paintings and furniture, display responds to
Surrounded by smaller paintings of the same artists or
copies after him, genre and mythological scenes, similar
style and presence of nudes
position in the building
size of the room
height of the walls
relation with the adjoining
wall color and texture
selection of artworks
arrangement of the Boucher
Table 1. Architecture and design of the two exhibition rooms.
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 9
Stimuli. Two paintings of French eighteenth century artist François Boucher, which show
remarkable similarities in style, content and initial function (Burollet, 2004; Ternois, 1966),
exhibited in the Louvre Museum and the Cognacq-Jay Museum in Paris, were used in the present
study. The participants had access to the information provided by the museum concerning the
artworks (label) and the general content of the room (text panel).
Display evaluation. To assess the evaluation of the exhibition design, judgment on
architectural and design features of the room (liking of the presentation, size of the room, height
of the walls, lighting, wall color, and number of objects) were measured. The selection of these
items was based on the findings of several studies on the impact of museum environment on art
experience (Pelowski et al., 2017). All were rated on 7-point Likert-type scales from 1
(unpleasant) to 7 (pleasant), except for liking of the presentation and number of objects
(1=dissatisfied, 7=satisfied). Furthermore, the perceived harmony of exhibited artworks
(according to size, colors, subjects, style, and ambiance) was measured by 7-point Likert-type
scales (1=strongly disagree, disagree, slightly disagree, neutral, slightly agree, agree, 7=strongly
Figure 1. François Boucher, Diana Returning from
the Hunt, 1745, oil on canvas, 0,94 x 1,31 cm, Paris,
Musée Cognacq-Jay, J 20, © Wikimedia Commons,
Figure 2. François Boucher, Diana Getting out of her
Bath, 1742, oil on canvas, 0,57 x 0,73 cm, Paris,
Louvre Museum, INV. 2712, © Wikimedia Commons,
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 10
agree). As a hook, the questionnaire started with an open question (When you think of the room
you just visited, which aspects of the presentation come to your mind?) to determine the aspects
and features of the display that the visitors remarked most.
Art experience. To assess the experience of artworks, memory, interest, comprehension,
liking, arousal and valence were measured. Using these scales enables the measurement of
affective (valence and arousal) and cognitive (memory, interest, understanding and liking)
aspects of art experience and allows the comparison with previous studies (Grüner et al., 2019;
Brieber et al. 2015; Brieber et al. 2014). The operationalization was as follows: Memory (Do you
remember this painting?), liking (Did you like this painting?), interest (Did this painting wake
your interest?), understanding (Is this painting understandable for you?), arousal (Did this
painting excite you?), and valence (How would you evaluate your encounter with this painting?).
All were rated on 7-point Likert-type scales from 1 (not at all) to 7 (a lot), except for valence
(1=very negative to 7=very positive). Two open questions (Describe your first impression of this
painting…, and In your opinion, does this painting match the other works of art in this room or
not? Why?) were conceived, with the idea of capturing further information about the visitor’s art
experience, that were not taken into account by the rating scales. The internal consistency of the
test calculated as Cronbach’s alpha was at = .909, thus making the test reliable.
Participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire (either in French or English) after
having visited the room exhibiting the particular painting used for this study. The instructions
were given orally, and the participants were not explicitly informed about the purpose of the
study (to avoid bias).
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 11
The better the display, the more satisfying the art experience?
Correlations of the art experience scale ratings revealed a relation between affective and
cognitive functioning (Table 2). Interest and linking showed the strongest correlation (r= 0.788,
.001). A general tendency for higher correlations of affective functioning, for instance
arousal and valence (r = 0.685, .001), than for cognitive processes was observed.
Affective functioning in art experience, arousal and valence, was also more strongly
correlated with the evaluation of architectural and design features than cognitive ones (Table 3).
As for the specific aspects of display, the appreciation of the presentation in general, height of
the walls and the number of objects exhibited were most strongly correlated with the art
experience. The appreciation of the presentation, for instance, showed an important linear
relation with valence (r = .393, .001), arousal (r = .342, .001) and liking (r = .305,
.001). The aspect wall color was little or even negatively correlated with art experience, for
instance memory (r = -.017, .814) and understanding (r = -.014, .843). Interestingly,
memory is very little correlated with architectural and design features, but its most important
linear relation can be found for number of objects (r =.132, .065).
Even higher correlations were found between the perceived harmony of the exhibited
artworks and the appreciation of the painting in the present study (Table 4). A general harmony
in the selection of artworks showed the most important correlation among the criteria that were
taken into account, particularly for valence (r = .395, .001) and arousal (r = .345, .001)
but also for cognitive functioning such as interest (r = .295, .001) and understanding (r
= .261, .001). The second most important aspect in terms of linear relation with art
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 12
experience, was the perceived harmony of artworks according to their size with highest
correlations for affective functioning, but interestingly also for memory (r = .209, .003).
Does context really matter?
The descriptive statistics show that the participants of the Cognacq-Jay group evaluated
the architectural and design features higher than the participants of the Louvre group, exception
being the wall-height and lighting, here the Louvre received higher scores. A mixed MANOVA
including the evaluation of the presentation rating scales as between-subjects factor, and group
(Cognacq-Jay and Louvre) as within-subjects factor, revealed a significant effect of the group
interaction on the ratings (Wilks = 0.863, F(6,19) = 5.045, .001,
= .137). Separated
one-way ANOVAs revealed strongest effects for general appreciation of the presentation (F(1,19)
= 6.636, .001,
= .033), wall color (F(1,19) = 9.753, .002,
= .047) and number of
objects (F(1,19) = 13.716, .001,
In the same vein, descriptive statistics revealed that the participants of the Cognacq-Jay
group rated all harmony between artwork scales higher. Another mixed MANOVA was run for
harmony between artworks rating scales as between-subjects factor with significantly differences
between both groups (Wilks = 0.831, F(6,19) = 6.426, .001,
= .169). By running
separated one-way ANOVAs, significant effects emerged for harmony according to subjects
(F(1,195) = 57.959, .001,
= .140), according to style (F(1,195) = 25.387, .001,
= .092) and according to ambiance (F(1,195) = 31.830, .001,
Confirming the tendency observed by the previous analysis, participants of the Cognacq-
Jay group rated higher on all art appreciation scales compared to the Louvre group. A mixed
MANOVA for art appreciation scales as between-subjects factor revealed a significant effect of
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 13
the group interaction on the ratings. By running separated one-way ANOVAs, significant
differences were observed for memory (F(1,188) = 45.634, .003,
= .045), interest
(F(1,188) = 24.954, .003,
= .046, and arousal (F(1,188) = 6.299, .013,
Thus, context had a considerable effect on the experience of art.
This study investigated the impact of exhibition design and display on art appreciation.
To our knowledge, it is the first study that demonstrates the direct link between evaluation of
architectural and design features on the affective and cognitive processing of artworks.
Our findings, on psychological functioning in art experience, suggest an interdependency
of affective and cognitive processes. Moreover, the affective state seems to adapt according to
the degree of cognitive mastery. This observation is in line with previous research on art
processing models (Leder et al., 2004). The present study revealed that appreciation of the
exhibition room is linked to art experience, especially affective processes. Previous studies in
environmental psychology found that environmental aspects, such as lighting and wall color, had
an impact on the affective state, mood for instance, of individuals (Quartier et al. 2014; Dijkstra
et al. 2008). The number of objects had according to our study an impact on the detection of a
specific artwork. This finding is line with research in the field of cognitive sciences that suggest
that contextual stimuli can either hinder or favor detection of a target stimulus (Olivia and
Torralba, 2007). The negative correlation of wall color with cognitive processes remains
unexplained in our study. A possible explanation could be that a strong appreciation of the
inherent aesthetic qualities of wall color and texture, the wood-paneled walls in our study for
instance, might distract from the actual artwork. Despite the lack of scientific evidence to explain
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 14
this finding, research on the psychological impact of color suggests a highly individual and
culturally influenced perception of specific hues and shades (Elliott and Maier, 2014; Dijkstra et
al. 2008). Perceived harmony between the selection of artworks exhibited together had an even
bigger impact on art experience, mostly on affective but also cognitive functioning. Among the
criteria for coherence in the selection of artworks, size played the most important role in art
experience, as an essential semantic feature in object recognition (Olivia and Torralba, 2007).
Higher scores on almost all rating scales, including appreciation of the display and exhibition
design, perceived harmony between the artworks and art experience, attributed by participants of
the Cognacq-Jay group prove, that context indeed matters in aesthetical experience. The
encounter with the Boucher painting was experienced as more satisfying, on the affective as well
as cognitive level, by visitors of Musée Cognacq-Jay. In view of these findings, we suggest that
the exhibition design and selection of artworks in Musée Cognacq-Jay can be qualified as more
coherent, legible and complex according to environmental appreciation models (Cassidy, 1999).
Despite the valuable findings of this study, some limitations have to be taken into account
that will lead to recommendations for further research. As the present study was not conducted in
a laboratory but in a “real” environment, test conditions are naturally less stable which can lead
to less reliable results. In the same vein, the stimuli chosen were paintings with similar semantic
and formal features but still not the same. Therefore, we have to consider that results are
susceptible to be biased by this fact. It was possible to determine quantitative differences in
appreciation of exhibition design and selection of artworks according to specific categories. As
this study is the first to investigate the direct impact of exhibition design on art experience, we
were not able to draw general conclusions on how exactly specific environmental properties
interfere with art experience. Further studies should therefore manipulate specific contextual
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 15
features (such as wall color, lighting, arrangement of artworks) to generate a more precise
knowledge about the impact of particular design choices.
Although museum professionals become more and more aware of the important role of
exhibition design for the experience of artworks, little systematic research has been done in this
field. This research issue is however crucial for understanding the social relevance of museums,
the relation of museum space and exhibited artworks and the psychological impact of both of
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 16
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EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 21
Pearson correlation coefficient of the different types of psychological functioning
Note: ** strong effect, […] in brackets the findings of Brieber, D., Nadal, M., and Leder, H.
(2015). In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art. Acta
Psychologica, 154, 36-42.
Pearson correlation coefficient of evaluation of exhibition design and appreciation of the painting
size of the room
height of the walls
color of the walls
number of objects
Note: * small effect, ** medium effect
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 22
Pearson correlation coefficient of harmony between objects and appreciation of the painting
Note: * small effect, ** medium effect
EXHIBITION CONTEXT AND ARTWORK APPRECIATION 23
Figure 3. Comparison of the six rating scales for the two groups. Vertical axis indicates the
average for each scale, the horizontal axis indicates the groups, means and error bars indicate