Social scientists at the University of Arkansas have been studying the benefits of exposure to art. A recent study found that students exposed to cultural institutions like museums and performing arts centers display greater tolerance, historical empathy, educational memory and critical thinking skills.
At one art museum, visiting students viewed five paintings over the course of an hour. The tours were student-directed, which means curators did not lecture. Instead, they gave students minimal information about each painting and spent the majority of the time facilitating discussion. (Human Resources, take note.)
Roughly three weeks later, students filled out a survey about their museum experience. In addition to recalling information about the paintings they’d seen, they were asked general questions about their tolerance toward others and whether they felt able to empathize with people from different historical periods. They were also asked to write a short essay about one particular painting. Independent judges then coded all the essays on a well-regarded critical-thinking-skills assessment program.
The scientists were surprised by how much academic information the students had learned and remembered. The discussion-based format compelled students to ask both important and relevant questions about the paintings. But something about the museum experience also enabled students to remember this information nearly a month later. (Remarkable when we consider how quickly most students forget knowledge they’ve learned for tests.)
When it came to analyzing a painting, they were much better at seeing specific details. They were also better at relating the painting to their own experience, identifying subtext, and allowing for multiple interpretations. They were able to empathize with the people and scenarios depicted.