A Knowing Look - The Influence of Interpretative Labels on the Perception of Art


  • Ana Špacapan University of Ljubljana
  • Seda Pesen University of Vienna
  • Luise Reitstätter University of Vienna
  • Raphael Rosenberg University of Vienna


Engaging with an artwork means answering its challenge: “See me if you can!’’ [1]. When confronted with a painting, our spontaneous interpretations are subjected to changes triggered by its title or accompanying text (when it is provided). By learning to see things to which we were blind before, we are granted an opportunity to witness the role of understanding in granting us access to the world, bringing it into perceptual consciousness [1]. This study focuses on the differences in visitors’ responses and gaze patterns with or without contextual information as present in interpretative museum labels. Eye tracking technology has proven useful in the interdisciplinary research of perception of art, as it offers a clearer insight into an observer's gaze behavior. Visitors’ interpretations have thus been shown to deepen and differ when they have access to contextual information [2]. I believe that bringing this relation into focus can inform the way we interact with art objects, as well as our more general conception of visual perception.

Data was collected from a temporary exhibition at the Belvedere Museum, which featured works associated with Realism. This paper’s focus is on the exhibition’s second room, where label text was altered or added between experimental conditions. We included 244 participants, which were randomly recruited on-site, among normal museum-goers. We asked each to complete a survey, with which we gathered sample characteristics. After instructing the participants to view the exhibition at their own pace, we outfitted them with mobile eye-tracking glasses to capture their gaze behavior. When they concluded their visit, we subjected them to an open-ended interview.

I expect the data to show an indication of ‘deeper’ interaction with exhibited paintings in the condition with added painting labels. This can be inferred from a longer visit duration to the exhibited paintings and their labels, a higher average fixation duration on areas of interest, as well as various expressions of engagement with the work present in the qualitative data. Further exploratory analysis into saccadic movement will be conducted, to reveal possible patterns of changes between conditions.

There is not one way of understanding an artwork, but by opening ourselves to the dialogue it offers, we are able to change the way we perceive it – and critically, expose the habitual ways in which we overlook the role our knowledge has in opening our eyes to the world.


[1] A. Noë and A. Noë, Varieties of Presence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.          

[2] L. Reitstätter, K. Galter, and F. Bakondi, "Looking to read: How visitors use exhibit labels in the Art Museum," Visitor Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 127–150, 2022. doi:10.1080/10645578.2021.2018251