Looking through the eyes of museum visitors – The Van Gogh Museum Eye-tracking Project

Van Gogh Eyetracking project

Many of us appreciate art, but no-one really knows how or why we do so. Researchers in the field of empirical aesthetics attempt to answer such questions. The way people look at paintings is often studied by letting participants view works of art on a computer screen in a laboratory, during which their gaze is tracked with a stationary and bulky eye tracker. Obviously this is not a ‘natural setting’ in which people normally view paintings or appreciate art, so the question remains how well viewing behavior in such laboratory settings approaches that of real life.

A group of researchers from the Department of Experimental and Applied psychology therefore decided to use a novel approach. Francesco Walker, (assisted by Berno Bucker, Daniel Schreij and Nicola Anderson, and supervised by prof. Jan Theeuwes), used a mobile eye-tracker to track the gaze of children and adults as they viewed actual paintings on display at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, one of the world’s most famous museums.

The main topic of study was how stimulus-driven and goal-driven processes work together in guiding our attention or gaze through a painting, and if there is a difference between children and adults in how this happens. Stimulus-driven processes direct our attention to certain locations in a painting that are very conspicuous, such as spots that are brighter than their surroundings or objects with a color that stands out. On the other hand, goal-driven processes steer our attention towards locations in the painting that are in the context of our goals, intentions or desires. For instance, if we are trying to determine if the weather in a depicted scene is good or bad, we will mainly inspect sections of the painting that are most likely to provide us that information (such as the sky).

In the first phase of the study, we asked our participants to view a selected set of five van Gogh paintings. In the second phase, we gave them a briefing with some specific back story of each painting, after which asked them to view the paintings again. The differences between their eye movements in the two phases showed that bottom-up cues had a greater influence on the children than the adults and that the effects of the briefing were stronger and longer-lasting in the adults.

The Van Gogh Museum Eye-tracking Project demonstrates the feasibility of studies in museum settings, and brings collaborations between museum and universities to a whole new level: the educational staff of the VGM did not only give us the opportunity to perform our study in the museum – they contributed actively in every phase of the study. We believe that in empirical aesthetics, this kind of active collaboration between scientific and cultural institutions is not only possible, but essential, and hope that our pioneering work will lead to future collaborations with the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, and with other high profile institutions.