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Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes

Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes

The Walters Art Museum: January 21-April 15, 2012


The broad aims of this exhibition were to bring awareness to the public of the importance of touch in art and to understand why some objects feel aesthetically pleasant. The exhibition resulted from a conversation between Steven Hsiao of the Johns Hopkins University, who is interested in how the brain processes information from the hand, and Joaneath Spicer, curator of Renaissance art at the Walters Art Museum. Little is known about the aesthetics of tactile perception and it was not known whether statuettes that were made by artists to be held in the hand are aesthetically pleasing to hold. In this exhibition we attempted, for the first time, to collect data on tactile perception from the public using iPads. The first question that we asked is whether we could collect meaningful data from random inputs by visitors to the museum. Because of the complexity of putting together the exhibition we were unable to track individual data about each of the visitors and as such the data below are averages across more than 3,000 visitors who performed the study. This includes people who were both sighted and blind, young and old, male and female. The data is the average responses received from all visitors to the exhibition and entered their subjective impressions of the sculptures into the iPads. The resulting graphs are quite meaningful and interesting and indicate that we share a common sense of beauty when we feel objects with our hands.

To remind you about the study, there were six different stations where you were asked to feel the objects and rate them on a scale of 1-10 of whether the object felt aesthetically pleasing. Visitors then touched a number on the iPad that corresponded with their subjective impression of the pleasantness of the object with higher numbers representing objects that felt more pleasant. Visitors were asked to make their judgments based on the sensations from their hands and to ignore their visual impressions of the objects.

In the first three stations we tested the tactile aesthetics of object features. The results from the first station are shown in the top left panel labeled “Textures.” In this station we tested whether there is a relationship between the roughness of a surface and pleasantness. As you can see, the left plate which was the smoother is rated as more pleasant than the two plates that had a rougher surface. In the top right panel labeled “Shapes” we tested whether pleasantness is affected by size and by the symmetry of the object. It appears from this graph that asymmetrical objects feel better than symmetrical objects and that size is not related to pleasantness. Whether these findings will hold up for other symmetrical and asymmetrical objects and for a wider range of sizes is not known. 

In the bottom left panel labeled “Curvatures” we show the results for objects that varied in curvature.  Here we found a striking effect with many visitors rating the large smooth surface the highest.

From these three panels we can now conclude that surface features affect the perceived pleasantness of objects with smooth, mildly curved, asymmetrical objects being preferred to symmetrical, highly curved shapes with a rough surface.

In the next two stations we tested the pleasantness of sculptures that we modified from the original. As you can see in the graph on the left labeled “Sculpture Size and Texture,” texture has a large effect on pleasantness. In this graph the statue that is second from the left was modified to have a very rough surface. This result agrees with the results shown above and illustrated that texture plays a major role in how pleasant objects feel. Again we find that the size of the statue had little effect on perceived pleasantness.

The graph on the right labeled “Morphed Sculptures” shows pleasantness ratings of sculptures that we modified to reduce either the fine features of the sculptures or were morphed so only the basic shape of the sculpture remained. Here we find the clear result of the visitors liking the highly morphed sculptures. Presumably this is because these sculptures fit comfortably in your hand like the large curved object shown in the curvature study above. In future studies we will investigate whether this preference is related to hand size.



In the last station we asked visitors to explore four sculptures that were copies of the original sculptures. Here we find that the second statue from the right was felt to be the most pleasant. The findings from these sculptures did not agree with our original hypothesis of select Renaissance statues (the two on the left) being tactually most pleasant. One possibility that could account for the data is that the two sculptures to the left were bronze replicas which made them particularly heavy which could have detracted from their overall pleasantness.


In conclusion, we now believe that a large component of tactile pleasantness is explained by simple features of the objects, such as their roughness or curvature. We hypothesize that artists may explicitly use these qualities to make sculpture feel aesthetically pleasing.

We thank you for coming to visit the exhibition and hope that the next time that you hold an object in your hand that you consider the sensory qualities of objects before judging whether they are aesthetically pleasant.