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Aesthetic Experience as Public Value : The IMA's Viewing Project

Leason, Tiffany - (Chair)
Duke, Linda - (Panelist)
Schlagenhauff, Annette - (Panelist)
Williams, Patterson - (Discussant)


The Viewing Project (VP) is a series of experimental installations comprised of objects from the permanent collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The project is funded in part by a generous grant from Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne and aims to support visitors as they find meanings that matter to them in art works from different times and places. We will discuss successes and challenges that we have encountered while trying to achieve the project objectives (i.e., develop presentations/installation designs that encourage longer looking and looking again at works of art, create infromation architecture that meets the needs of visitors at varying levels of art experience, develop a better understanding of aesthetic experience and its measurable signifiers) and the possibilities for communicating to a broad audience of colleagues what people’s experiences with art in The Viewing Project installations have taught us.


The work of psychologist Abigail Housen and museum educator Philip Yenawine serves as a touch-stone for our cross-departmental team: curators, educators, designers and technology experts. Each VP installation has a theme based on Housen’s research, which has identified strengths and interests of museum visitors related to works of art. Housen’s research suggests that active looking experiences enable a kind of growth in the understanding of art itself - what Housen terms “aesthetic development” - that cannot be obtained through reading or hearing information (Housen, 1999). A main objective of the Viewing Project is to encourage visitors to feel comfortable looking actively at art for longer periods of time. VP installations are designed to encourage viewers to defer judgments (like/don’t like). They focus attention instead on productive activities that Housen’s research indicates many visitors will do naturally, such as noticing details (VP3) or spatial relationships in art (VP4). “Moving between research, theory and practice enriches the understanding of the aesthetic response. It has revealed how it is more than one response; rather, it is a chain of responses…It has shown that beginners can and will develop if they are given relevant and provocative stimulation in the form of art works to respond to, questions to ponder, and space to share experiences. In short, aesthetic growth will naturally and predictably appear if we create the conditions that foster the aesthetic experience” (Housen, 1999, p. 24). VP installations aim to support such active looking experiences, while still providing substantial information to visitors who want it. The installation’s design makes a distinction between aesthetic experiences (noticing, wondering, reconsidering) in front of works of art, and the process of seeking information about the art.

Visitor research and evaluation is an ongoing and integral part of the project. In addition to observational data, we have conducted cued and qualitative interviews, collected visitor comments via a computer station and hand-written on cards, as well as having held visitor panel discussions. We have conducted numerous Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) discussions with visitors ranging from fourth grade through graduate and professional school levels. This technique has allowed us to hear participants verbalize their experiences of looking at works of art in small groups. We have also engaged in conversations with professionals in educational research (Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine), visitor research and evaluation (Randi Korn, Andrew Pekarik, Elizabeth Wood, Douglas Worts), and museums and technology (Nancy Proctor, Jeffrey Inscho, Bruce Wyman), among others. Due to the iterative nature of the project, we have the benefit of incorporating what we learn from visitors and other collaborators by making changes to subsequent displays.


We believe that the opportunity to have an aesthetic experience fulfills an age-old function of art: it can help us understand the experience of being human. Churches and temples, ceremonies and rites of passage have used art to offer such experiences throughout human history. Can we measure the success of an art museum in providing such opportunities? How might we assess art experiences that are not matters of “like” or “don’t like” and that, furthermore, do not hinge on how much information was transmitted or retained? We hope this session will encourage others to conduct similar inquiries that test applications of theory in the real world of museum practice and look closely at the effects of installation design, groupings of works of art, and information presentation on visitor engagement as indicated by such measures as viewing times and feedback from interviews. We also hope to prompt more studies that seek ways to assess aesthetic engagement, something that we consider central to the public value of an art museum.


Clarkson, A., & Worts, D. (2005). The animated muse: An interpretive program for creative writing. Curator: The Museum Journal, 48(3), 257-279.

Denver Art Museum. (2001). Enriching visitor experiences: The reinstallation of the Denver Art Museum’s European and American collections. Retrieved from

Housen, A. (1987). Three methods for understanding museum audiences. Museum Studies Journal, 2(4), 41-49.

Housen, A. (1999). Eye of the beholder: Research, theory and practice. Retrieved from

Housen, A. (2009). A brief guide to developmental theory and aesthetic development. Retrieved from

Pekarik, A.J. (2010). From knowing to not knowing: Moving beyond “outcomes.” Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(1), 105-115.

Rice, D., & Yenawine, P. (2002). A conversation on object-centered learning in art museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 45(4), 289-301.

Sheets, H.M. (2010, March 18). In Dallas, the art is only part of the show. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Yenawine, P. (2001). Thoughts on writing in museums. Retrieved from

Yenawine, P. (2002). Notes on aesthetic understanding and its development. Presentation at Interactive Learning in Museums of Art and Design, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Retrieved from


Additional Information

The Viewing Project: Seeing Doubled (October 29, 2008-March 29, 2009)

The Viewing Project: Seeing Tripled (October 29, 2008-March 29, 2009)

The Viewing Project: Wondering about Detail (May 19, 2009-December 3, 2009)

The Viewing Project: Wondering about Space (December 22, 2009-June 20, 2010)

Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne

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