Research Case Study

Insight: Improving access in museums and galleries

  • Tagged under

    Digital, creative and cultural

A woman with vibrantly dyed hair helps to hand a colourful picture in a gallery

An interdisciplinary collaboration between a behavioural psychologist and an art historian has helped local and national galleries, including the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), ensure they have the evidence they need to enhance the viewing experience for all by studying how people view artworks.

The challenge

Understanding how people move around cultural spaces is crucial if we want to ensure everyone has the best chance to access, engage with, enjoy and learn from art.

But what do we really know about whether people naturally gravitate to their right or left, or how the height at which an artwork is displayed makes a difference to how it is viewed?

These were the questions addressed by an interdisciplinary project by Dr Tom Foulsham from the Department of Psychology and Dr Michael Tymkiw from the School of Philosophical, Interdisciplinary and Historical Studies.

What we did

Working in Colchester’s Firstsite gallery, the V&A and the Essex Collection of Latin American Art (ESCALA), they used mobile cameras and eye tracking software to study biases in the way people move around galleries.

They observed what people paid attention to and looked at, and whether wheelchair users or others with restricted mobility viewed art differently.

What we learned

They found that spectators were biased towards starting from the top left of artworks and moving rightwards, and these visitors favoured looking at artworks roughly displayed at eye-level. Such left-to-right movement however was much less pronounced among wheelchair users who also tended to spend more time looking at artworks at or below eye level.

Their research also showed that wheelchair users found it harder to view artworks positioned more deeply within display cabinets.

What we changed

Taken together, the findings have raised questions about how ‘normal’ ways of displaying art encourage audiences to view works in a particular way and how curators often rely on normative assumptions about peoples’ mobility.

Dr Foulsham and Dr Tymkiw hope their work can help museums and galleries critically review and improve their approaches to exhibiting objects so that they don’t inadvertently hinder access for disabled visitors.

Their work is already influencing how local curators understand the spectator experience with Dr Sarah Demelo, Director of ESCALA, saying: “These findings are incredibly valuable to curators. I, like others working in our sector, want to ensure everyone has the best experience possible when they visit our museums and galleries so to have insights about how people move around our spaces, particularly those with limited mobility, helps us design exhibitions that maximise every visitor’s enjoyment and education.”