Affect in information systems: a knowledge organization system approach to documenting visitor-artwork experiences


Erin Canning, Aga Khan Museum, Canada

Viewers of artworks exhibited in museums and galleries are known to experience felt reactions to art objects and exhibitions in a way that constitutes an important dimension of the public function of museums, complementary to their role as sites of learning and community. The ability of artworks to elicit such affective response is widely recognized, yet remains absent from museum documentation systems, standards, and methods. It is impossible to continue to ignore the gulf between the information that the museum wants to present to its publics, and the information that the museum collects and stores in its information systems.

In this paper, based on my Master’s thesis (Canning, 2018), I discuss the development of a conceptual framework for the notion of affect in experiences of artworks within the art museum, and its manifestation in museum information systems and standards—namely, the inclusion of affective metadata, involving both a data model and corresponding taxonomy of affective terms. This system should be able to reliably represent the diversity and complexity of information related to the affective dimensions of the art-viewing experience. In addition to initial system development, I discuss the process and results of an empirical visitor-response study conducted to validate the proposed model, and the revisions and future work that came to light as a result of this study. In particular, I discuss the notion of empathy and connection-making that occurred between research participants and the artworks selected for the study. I conclude by examining how this process could be incorporated into the proposed model, and discuss the complexities in doing so.

Bertola, F., & Patti, V. (2016). Ontology-based affective models to organize artworks in the social semantic web. Information Processing and Management, 52(1), 139–162.

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting things out: classification and its consequences (1st paperback edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The MIT Press.

Canning, E. (2018, in press). Affective metadata for object experiences in the art museum (Master’s thesis). University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

Cameron, F. R. (2008). Object-oriented democracies: conceptualising museum collections in networks. Museum Management and Curatorship, 23(3), 229–243.

Dallas, C. (2007). An agency-oriented approach to digital curation theory and practice. In J. Trant & D. Bearman (Eds.), The International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting Proceedings. Toronto, Canada.

Dietz, S. (1999). Telling Stories: Procedural Authorship and Extracting Meaning from Museum Databases. In Museums and the Web 1999. Retrieved from

Du, S., Shu, E., Tong, F., Ge, Y., Li, L., Qiu, J., ... Muller, D. (2016). Visualizing the emotional journey of a museum. In EmoVis’16: Proceedings of the 2016 EmoVis Conference on Emotion and Visualization (pp. 7–14).

Elkins, J. (2004). Pictures & tears: a history of people who have cried in front of paintings. New York: Routledge.

Freedberg, D. (1989). The power of images: studies in the history and theory of response.
Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Gilchrest, A. (2003). Factors Affecting Controlled Vocabulary Usage in Art Museum Information Systems. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 22(1), 13–20.

Gregory, K., & Witcomb, A. (2007). Beyond nostalgia: the role of affect in generating historical understanding at heritage sites. In Museum revolutions : how museums change and are changed (pp. 263–275). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hastings, J., Ceusters, W., Smith, B., & Mulligan, K. (2011). The Emotion Ontology: Enabling Interdisciplinary Research in the Affective Sciences. In M. Beigl, H. Christiansen et al. (Eds.), International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Modeling and Using Context (Vol. 6967, pp. 119–123). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Hemmings, C. (2005). Invoking Affect: Cultural theory and the ontological turn. Cultural Studies, 19(5), 548–567.

Hogarty, S. B., Winesmith, K., Hrudka, M., & Schechter, B. (2015). Art + Data: Building the SFMOMA Collection API. In Museums and the Web 2015. Retrieved from

Jones, T., Tisdale, R., & Wood, E. (Eds.) (2017). Active Collections. New York: Routledge.

Kirchberg, V., & Tröndle, M. (2015). The Museum Experience: Mapping the Experience of Fine Art. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(2), 169–193.

Krmpotich, C., & Somerville, A. (2016). Affective Presence: The Metonymical Catalogue. Museum Anthropology, 39(2), 178–191.

Le Boeuf, P., Doerr, M., Ore, C.E. & Stead, S. (2017.) Definition of the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model. Produced by the ICOM-CIDOC Documentation Standards Group. 30%23CIDOC%20CRM_v6.2.2_esIP.pdf.

Lopatovska, I., Arthur, K., Bardoff, C., Diolola, J., Furlow, Ti., ... Shaw, J. (2015). Engaging digital artworks through emotion: interface design case study. In iConference 2015 Proceedings.

Marty, P.F. & Jones, K.B. (Eds.) (2008). Museum informatics: people, information, and technology in museums. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mikels, J. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Larkin, G. R., Lindberg, C. M., Maglio, S. J., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. A. (2005). Emotional category data on images from the international affective picture system. Behavior Research Methods, 37(4), 626–630.

Mitias, M. H. (1988). What makes an experience aesthetic? Würzburg : Amsterdam: Königshausen & Neumann ; Rodopi.

Orna, E., & Pettitt, C. W. (1998). Information management in museums (2nd ed.). Aldershot, Hants, England: Gower.

Parry, R. (2007). Recoding the museum: digital heritage and the technologies of change. London; New York: Routledge.

Posner, M. (2016). What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities. Debates in Digital Humanities. Retrieved from

Roussou, M., Ripanti, F., & Servi, K. (2017). Engaging Visitors of Archaeological Sites through “EMOTIVE” Storytelling Experiences: A Pilot at the Ancient Agora of Athens. Journal of Archeologia E Calcolatori, 28(2), 405–420.

Schindler, I., Hosoya, G., Menninghaus, W., Beermann, U., Wagner, V., Eid, M., & Scherer, K. R. (2017). Measuring aesthetic emotions: A review of the literature and a new assessment tool. PLoS ONE, 12(6), e0178899.

Smith, L., & Campbell, G. (2016). The Elephant in the Room: Heritage, Affect, and Emotion. In W. Logan, M. N. Craith, & U. Kockel (Eds.), A Companion to Heritage Studies (pp. 443–460). Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Tam, C. O. (2006). Understanding museum visitors’ experience of paintings: a phenomenological study of adult non-art specialists. Institute of Education, University of London.

Tkalčič, M., Tasič, J., & Košir, A. (2012). The Need for Affective Metadata in Content-Based Recommender Systems for Images. In M. T. Maybury (Ed.), Multimedia Information Extraction (pp. 305–319). Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Turner, H. (2015b). Information Infrastructures in the Museum: Documenting, Digitizing, and Practising Ethnographic Objects in the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology. University of Toronto.

Watson, S. (2015). Emotions in the History Museum. In A. Witcomb & K. Message (Eds.), The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Theory (pp. 283–301). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Weinard, C. (2017, March 20). New Dimensions for Collections at WCMA. Retrieved from

Wood, E., & Latham, K. (2009). Object Knowledge: Researching Objects in the Museum Experience. Reconstruction, 1.