Humanities and Arts

How Museums Make Us Feel: Affective Niche Construction and the Museum of Non-Objective Painting

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Art museums are built to elicit a wide variety of feelings, emotions, and moods from their visitors. While these effects are primarily achieved through the artworks on display, museums commonly deploy numerous other affect-inducing resources as well, including architectural solutions, audio guides, lighting fixtures, and informational texts. Art museums can thus be regarded as spaces that are designed to influence affective experiencing through multiple structures and mechanisms. At face value, this may seem like a somewhat self-evident and trivial statement to make. However, in this article, I argue that niche construction theory enables us to make several illuminating observations about the ways in which art museums are engineered to influence our feelings. To expound on this claim, I single out for discussion the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which for its entire lifespan (1939–52)—and prior to its evolution into the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—was expressly organized to kindle in its visitors a special, spiritual form of aesthetic experience: a liberating feeling of cosmic rhythm and order, no less. The argument will proceed as follows: In Part 1, I introduce the basics of niche construction theory and specify the sense in which I apply it to museums and aesthetic affective experiencing. In Part 2, I outline the origins and ethos of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, after which I pin down the type of affective experience it fostered by drawing from visitors’ self-reported reactions to the artworks on display. Then, in Part 3, I use niche construction theory to explain how the Museum consciously fashioned itself, by means of various mutually supportive resources and technologies, into a fertile setting for the specified feelings. Finally, in Part 4, I extend beyond the discussed case to assess the implications of niche construction theory for a broader understanding of how art museums make us feel. In other words, by tracing the early steps of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting towards the present-day Guggenheim, I call attention to the general variation in affective niches as regards their structure, technologies, and affective aims. Overall, the article elucidates the functioning of art museums as affective niches and furthers the conceptual development of niche construction theory in aesthetics.