Manchester Art Gallery’s project Open Doors provides creative activities for children with autism

Manchester Art Gallery

Open Doors
Open Doors is a series of artist-led creative activities aimed at children age five to 16 who have autism and other social-communication issues, their siblings, parents and carers.

The programme takes place once a month on a Saturday morning. Sessions are free and do not need to be booked.

The simple act of opening the gallery’s doors early, and only to the Open Doors participants, allows the families the freedom to engage with the space in their own time, adjusting to the echoes, smells and objects that fill the gallery. It enables them to feel safe and secure in the gallery.

Manchester Art Gallery’s Open Doors is run by Sarah Marsh, an artist and gallery educator and three volunteers: Alice, Jess and Rose.

The project involved installing multi-sensory materials and equipment in the gallery space so that experiences take place in front of artworks; encouraging development of creativity, exploration and confidence.

The sessions are process-based; there is no right or wrong way to engage with them. Emphasis is placed on experimentation and the session development is reactive to the children’s experiences with the materials and artworks.

Each session is inspired by an artwork, an exhibition or a particular gallery space; anything from post-Impressionist paintings to contemporary sculpture.

Marsh uses the artwork to explore a theme, so sessions have focused on colour and shape, light and shadows, opposites, movement, and most natural objects.

The session looking at Movement focused on Turner’s And Now for the Painter.

Some of the families sculpted strips of paper to create waves on the gallery floor, some created movement by blowing and scattering the strips; listening to sounds they made as they hit the floor and enjoying the wafting sensation of fanning the paper near bare skin.

Porcelain clay, cool to the touch, was laid out on reflective silver card, with prompt words such as “roll”, “twist”, “spin” and “wrap” written onto paper strips.

Some families responded to these words and explored their own language with the clay.

Soft, bendy wire was threaded into the clay by one child and then placed onto a moving turntable, the silhouette of which was projected onto the walls by an over-head projector.

This provided opportunities for participants to interact with their own shadows, questioning how the projector works and developing an understanding of how different materials react to light.

A large fan, placed on the floor, created an opportunity for clear cellophane strips to be blown into the air. Participants also enjoyed the sensation of the air blowing onto them.

These interventions encouraged free play, and provided a means of discovery, interaction and understanding at the children’s own pace.

One of the longer term aims of these sessions is to provide families with the confidence to access the gallery’s wider programme of free, family events. In some cases this has already happened.

As a result of the gallery’s learning from the programme a quiet room is now always available for those who may need it during all the gallery’s family workshops.

By coming to Open Doors, it is hoped that families gain the confidence and sense of ownership over the gallery spaces to then go on to access and participate in the gallery’s regular family learning programme of art clubs, holiday workshops and Clore Art Studio sessions.

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