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Reading detailed information about artworks leads to psychophysiological and behavioral changes, suggesting higher comprehension and liking and a more satisfying aesthetic experience. Credit: Klaudia Piaskowska, Unsplash, CC0.

Understanding how the public behaves in front of works of art and learns from them helps improve how cultural heritage is communicated. Museum curators consider how art is displayed, and often plan exhibitions based on qualitative or quantitative scientific studies.

Scientists from Università di Firenze, Sapienza Università di Roma, and Università Rome Tre used both objective and subjective measurements to investigate how different styles of art labels, more essential versus more descriptive, affect viewers' engagement. They gathered 30 university students and divided them into two groups of, respectively, 20 and 10 observers. Volunteers were checked for having comparable relevant parameters such as visual acuity, art knowledge and aesthetic preferences. Most of them were also unfamiliar with the artworks used.

The researchers used wearable devices that recorded data on the pupils and gaze, along with heart rate and electric activity on the skin. Participants then followed a pre-established path through a private museum in Florence and stopped in front of selected artworks, at an adequate distance and for a predetermined period of time. In the first session, all paintings had only essential labels. One month later, all participants came back for a second session. The 20 members of the experimental group were shown descriptive labels with more information, while the 10 members of the control group had the same labels of the first visit. At the end of each session, participants also compiled a questionnaire.

“In our study we combined a variety of techniques, spanning from physiological to behavioral methods” explains Maria Del Viva, a psychologist at Università di Firenze, and one of the authors of the study1.

After a statistical analysis, the results showed that those presented with more detailed labels spent more time viewing the artworks during the second session than during the first one, while the opposite was true for members of the control group.

Furthermore, the experimental group reported more positive feelings and better comprehension, and also showed physical signs of excitement, such as dilated pupils and increased skin electrodermal activity. These results may be specifically related to modern art exhibition, the authors note, and further studies are required to investigate similar aspects for different artistic modes.