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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Evaluating the Practical Applications of Eye Tracking in Museums


Museum professionals spend a significant amount of time studying the ways that visitors engage with objects in their collections to improve the quality of interaction with them. Focus groups at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and elsewhere indicate that visitors see art museums as places for “inspiration” and “contemplation;” however,  visitors are observed to spend very little time actually looking at art. Obtaining a more concrete understanding of what aspects of a visit are found to be inspiring, and how museums can actively promote and encourage those experiences remain some of the field’s biggest challenges. In thinking creatively as to how to address these problems, the authors began to explore whether recent advances in eye tracking technology might hold some answers.

Techniques for measuring gaze have been an important part of cognitive psychology since the early 1960’s. Environmental scans by Rayner (1998) summarize the scope and evolution of research linking eye tracking and cognition. Agreement in the research suggests that gaze and attention are tightly coupled (Hoffman 98) implying a direct relationship between the way we look at museum objects and our thinking about them. Research by Wooding (2002) examines the use of eye tracking systems and art from the collection of the National Gallery in London. While the data seems promising, Wooding’s work focused more on a generalized method for visualizing eye tracking data and not on specific applications of these techniques for art history or museology.  Milekic (2010) published an overview of gaze tracking and its potential applications for museums, highlighting the coming advent of cheap and commercially available equipment to support the use of these tools in a museum setting.

Funded by an IMLS Sparks! Ignition grant, the Indianapolis Museum of Art is exploring whether or not eye tracking technology can be useful to museums seeking to better understand how in-gallery visitors actually “see” the objects in our collection.  Through a set of three experiments, the project seeks to understand whether eye tracking can be used to measure visitor attention to artworks, understand the correlation between guided interpretation and visitor comprehension, and to trigger interpretive content delivery. In this paper, authors will review the relevant literature in the field that connects gaze detection and cognition; explain in detail the experimental methodology used to determine the practicality of adopting these techniques in museums; and report in initial conditions and factors discovered during the project’s initial research.


Rayner, K. (1998). Eye movements in reading and information processing: 20 years of research. Psychological Bulletin.

Hoffman, J. E. (1998). Visual attention and eye movements. In H. Pashler (ed.), Attention (pp. 119–154). Hove, UK: Psychology Press

Wooding, D. (2002). Fixation maps: quantifying eye-movement traces. In Proceedings of the 2002 symposium on Eye tracking research & applications (ETRA '02). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 31-36.

Milekic, S., Gaze-Tracking and Museums: Current Research and Implications. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted September 28, 2011.


Paper - in formal session


rjstein's picture
Robert Stein is the Deputy Director for Research, Technology and Engagement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). In that role, Stein leads a wide range of activities for the museum including an extensive effort in media, web technology and software. Since 2006, he has played a significant role...
ebachta's picture
Ed is a software developer who enjoys designing and implementing effective and engaging interactive experiences that empower people to explore and learn about the world around them. At the IMA he has developed exhibition websites and interactive features such as Virtual Rome for Roman Art from the...
silviaf's picture
Before joining the IMA as a manger for evaluation and technology-based engagement, Silvia worked for 10 years as a project manager and evaluator for a number of technology based projects in and for museums, including the British Museum, the J.P. Getty Museum, The Centre Pompidou, the Musee du...
tleason's picture
Tiffany Leason is the Manager of Audience Research & Evaluation in the Audience Engagement Department at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. She has worked in the museum field for over fifteen years spanning a wide range of departments and for the past five years has been involved in research and...