Museums are designed for people – they are spaces for inspiration, discovery and wonder. At institutions like V&A Dundee, we’ve come a long way in ensuring we work through any impediments that would otherwise leave certain communities excluded from everything a museum has to offer.
But understanding what these barriers may be in the first place involves a great deal of learning from the communities around us. There are still many people who engage with our spaces in a unique way – and their experiences can often be forgotten about.
For someone with sensory processing difficulties, a museum visit can prove to be a stressful experience. We are fortunate to have lively and inspiring spaces within our building but understand that for some people crowds of visitors can be overwhelming.
With sudden tannoy announcements, flashing lights and other unexpected sensorial elements, being in an energetic environment can trigger an uncomfortable experience. This is a big barrier to a community benefiting from what V&A Dundee has to offer. From the very beginning, we looked for ways to overcome this.
For us, the key to success has been to keep learning. One of the initiatives we started was to hold dedicated sensory friendly events on mornings and evenings when the museum was closed to the rest of the public, designed for people who needed a quieter, calmer atmosphere. It was wonderful to see just how much enjoyment these sessions brought to people’s lives – and then Covid hit.
It became even more prescient to ensure people could enjoy culture as a respite and as a learning tool, in ways that benefited them. However, the pandemic also came with a slight silver lining – it forced us to adapt and think creatively outside of the box and we had an unexpected opportunity to experiment with agile new ways of working.
We reflected on the learnings and visitor attendance of our previous Sensory Friendly sessions and acknowledged that people may struggle to attend a morning or evening session given its time restrictions. To counteract this, we took a decision to make use of the museum’s closure days to host Sensory Friendly days running for the full day between 11am and 4pm. This change has proved to be a tremendous success resulting in a 750% increase in ticket bookings.
For these refreshed events, we have introduced a new collection of sensory friendly backpacks. Carefully designed with input from users and expert advice from the Scotland-based charity Pamis, these backpacks allow people with profound and multiple learning impairments to interact better with the museum’s exhibition, Night Fever: Designing Club Culture.
The colourful bags are filled with many different materials relating to aspects of the exhibition, and visitors can make use of ear defenders too. In order to avoid unwanted stress for visitors, sound and light levels are easily adjusted throughout the day, and our quiet room is available to use whenever people need a moment to themselves.
Learning from all our visitors, especially communities that may not otherwise feel comfortable coming to see us, is a critical step in our inclusivity mission. By encouraging open feedback from families and carers who attend our sensory friendly events, we have been able to implement key learnings and develop measures to include even more people.
So what do we mean when we talk about “barrier free access”?
For V&A Dundee, this means so much more than knocking away physical barriers. By recognising the different, unique needs of others, and remaining receptive to people’s differences, we are able to find new ways to enhance our access facilities. We aim to always learn and evolve - and growing alongside the communities around us is helping us reach that goal.
Peter Nurick is the communities producer, inclusion and access, at V&A Dundee