The ambition of Trapholt is to make art and design a significant part of people’s lives. To do so, we need to create a sense of nearness between the person and the artwork. This nearness can be consolidated by an institutional understanding or by a cognitive understanding,

  • do I feel at home in the art museum?
  • how do I understand the artwork?

The experiences made at Trapholt indicate that experiencing artworks through the act of curating can have a positive effect on the psychological well-being of the visitors in relation to the art museum visit by creating an institutional understanding. But they also indicate that the cognitive understanding of the artwork can be opened by introducing new and personal understandings of the artwork.

Until now curating with audiences has been limited to smaller groups of participants in specific projects, and to make the possibility available to a broader audience, Trapholt is opening the exhibition YOUR exhibition in December 2014. It will be a traditional exhibition based on the museum collection, but with a digital layer making it possible for the visitors to collect artworks based on their personal definitions and preferences and thus create their own small exhibitions.

The thesis behind this research project is,

  1. the psychological well-being of the visitors inside the art museum will be increased when curating is introduced as a cognitive frame work for the experience and understanding of art and the art museum visit.
  2. curating will help give an understanding of and nearness to art and design making them relevant in people’s lives and thereby increasing their psychological well-being.

The main research questions are: 

  1. increase the psychological well-being of the museum visitor and how?
  2. place art and design as relevant and significant part of people’s lives?

This research project will contribute to the field by offering a bigger understanding of the dynamics that will appear between visitor, artwork and museum through the cognitive frame work of curating.

The museum experience

 A significant amount of research has been done on the museum experience. Falk and Dierking (2000) describe the museum visitor experience with the contextual model of learning, which involves three different contexts: the personal context, the physical context and the social context.1 The personal context includes prior experiences and knowledge, interests and motivations, and forms the personal expectations of the museum visit. The physical context is the museum as a building, the objects and artefacts exhibited and the ambience in the building. The social context includes all the other people in the museum space and the interactions the visitor has with them: the museum staff, the other visitors, the company the visitor arrives in etc. The interaction of these three contexts creates the museum experience – an experience that will always be unique to every visitor and every visit.2

George Hein (1998) presents to us the idea of a constructivist museum, in which the fact that we all interpret society, art, the world and everything in it differently, depending on our own backgrounds and experiences, is acknowledged.3 The constructivist museum has no predetermined sequence and encourages the comparisons between the familiar and the new through a range of activities that utilize the visitor’s life experiences.4

Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel (2006) describe the importance of possessing the right codes of classification in order to understand the art:

It must also be said that the same work can be deciphered according to several frameworks and that, just as a western can be the object of a naïve following or of a scholarly reading, the same pictorial work can be received differently by receivers of different levels and, for example, satisfy an interest in anecdote or hold attention through its formal properties alone. 5

The more codes of classification available to the individual, the more relevant and accessible the art will seem, and the more pleasant and fulfilling the museum experience will be. Could it be that by insisting solely on the traditional art-historical classifications, the museum limits the potential experiences of certain visitors? By creating hierarchies between the different kinds of knowledge visitors bring with them, the museum supports the idea of the museum as a place only for the initiated and insists on a right way of experiencing and understanding the artworks.

One thing, that these theories seem to forget, is the interaction between the visitor and the artwork. What kind of new meanings and new understandings will emerge in the interaction? Could the understanding of the interactions help us create more psychological well-being in relation to the art museum and in relation to art and design in general?

Psychological Well-being in the art museum

To measure the psychological well-being we needed a definition. So we turned to the American psychologist Carol Ryff, who is one of the leading well-being researchers in the world. Through the reading of theories on positive human functioning in utilitarian and existential philosophy and in clinical, developmental and humanistic psychology during the last one hundred years, Ryff has defined six scales important to the psychological well-being (PWB): Autonomy; self-acceptance; positive relations to others; personal growth; purpose in life; environmental mastery.6

The scales focus on the general PWB and to make them relevant in the art museum setting, we translated them into the art museum experience, creating new definitions of Art Museum Well-Being (AMWB). The six scales in AMWB are:

  • Autonomy in the art museum
  • art museum mastery
  • personal growth in the art museum
  • positive relations to others in the art museum
  • purpose of the art museum visit
  • self-acceptance in the art museum.

High scorers and low scorers of the six scales were defined, to be able to create a battery of questions to measure the AMWB. Our focus in the translation of the six scales was on the acceptance of one’s own personal knowledge and need as the point of departure for the art museum experience. The scales of AMWB were defined in cooperation with Carol Ryff.

Autonomy in the art museum:

  • High scorer: evaluates the art museum visit by independent and personal standards.
  • Low scorer: conforms to the opinions of others to think of and act in certain ways during the art museum visit.

Art museum mastery:

  • High scorer: able to choose or create an art museum visit suitable to personal needs and values – these needs and values can be art historical but are not limited to these
  • Low scorer: does not feel competent in relation to the art museum visit

Personal growth in the art museum:

  • High scorer: has a feeling of continued personal development during the art museum visit.
  • Low scorer: feels unable to develop new attitudes or behavior during the art museum visit.

Positive relations to others in the art museum:

  • High scorer: able to use the art museum setting in a way suitable to support valuable social relationships.
  • Low scorer: not able to use the art museum setting in a way suitable to support valuable social relationships.

Purpose of the art museum visit:

  • High scorer: has a sense of purpose and directedness during the art museum visit.
  • Low scorer: has no outlook or beliefs that give the art museum visit meaning.

Self-acceptance in the art museum:

  • High scorer: acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects of own point of departure in the understanding of the art museum - including own knowledge and non-knowledge.
  • Low scorer: does not see own competences as valuable in relation to the art museum visit; sees the lack of art historical knowledge as a personal defect.

The research design

 To measure the impact of curating on the AMWB we are conducting two separate comparable enquiries, gathering empiric data on the PWB and the AMWB of the Trapholt visitors. The first step has been conducted in the traditional museum setting in November 2014 gathering data from 153 museum visitors. The second step will be conducted in the beginning of 2015 after the opening of YOUR exhibition with curating introduced as a new cognitive frame work. In the first step, museum visitors have been asked to fill out questionnaires on their PWB when arriving at Trapholt and questionnaires on their AMWB just before leaving Trapholt. Knowing the PWB of the two groups is important to make sure the groups are comparable. If one group is low on general PWB and the other high on general PWB we will have to adjust the results of the AMWB accordingly. The participants in the second step will all have participated in YOUR exhibition and be given the same questionnaires as the participants in step one. This part ofthe research will provide us with an understanding of what happens with the relation between the art museum as an institution and the visitor when curating.

On the long term, Trapholt is preparing a large scale research over the next three years. The initial research described above focuses on the impact of the curatorial tool on the art museum well being with the understanding, that feeling well being in the art museum enhances the visitor’s possibility of having a meaningful relation and experience with art and thereby having a high PWB. To understand the impact of curating on the AMWB and by this improved relation to art, all participants in YOUR exhibition will receive a questionnaire on email where they will be asked to fill out demographic data and answer questions on their museum experience. They will after this be invited to participate in a longitudinal study lasting two years from their visit to YOUR exhibition with the goal of measuring if participating in YOUR exhibition increases their AMWB, and more importantly if it opens the world of art and design in way, so that art and design can become a significant part of people’s lives. To measure this last part, we will in March 2015 create a framework on Art Well Being (AWB).