Sensory Journeys: creating digital storytelling sessions for children - Museums Association

Sensory Journeys: creating digital storytelling sessions for children

South Shields Museum shares the aims and outcomes of this immersive digital project
Leslie Palanker
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South Shields Museum, part of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, launched Sensory Journeys at the end of last year, offering children and their families inclusive digital sensory story-telling sessions that are linked to local history and provide engagement with the museum's collections. 

Sensory Journeys are digital audio story-telling sessions where the listener creates the sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes to bring each story to life. Or they can just sit back, relax and listen.

Each digital storytelling session has several components including:

  • An audio story file.
  • A transcript.
  • A sound library of sound effects.
  • Lots of fun, sensory and creative activities to take part in.

The listener can create their own sensory stories and environments; learn how to make their own Foley art sound effects; enjoy activities that promote health and wellbeing and much more. There is also a cross-curricular formal primary schools programme, which includes the opportunity for completing an Arts Award and handling real artefacts linking to the stories.

Three unique, fictional stories have been developed for the project by local artists and writers:

  • Davy’s First Shift is the tale of a 12-year-old boy working down the coal mines, and was created by local artist and coal miner Robert (Bob) Olley.
  • Little Bear and the Treasure Box is a love story about the famous Regina Tombstone at Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort, created by North East writer Bronwen Riley.
  • To Catch a Smuggler is the story of three children who catch a smuggler at Marsden Bay, created by flash fiction writer John Nicholson.
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Foley art (the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to films, videos, and other media) has been produced by Ruth Sullivan, an Emmy award winning Foley artist, and is used throughout to enhance the sessions and help the listener engage with the stories.

The main objectives for this project were:

  • To develop and offer inclusive digital sensory story-telling sessions to children and their families which are linked to local history and art.
  • To provide authentic and meaningful engagement with the museum's collections outside the museum setting.
  • To produce a CD of audio stories and story text that could be distributed to those who did not have access to the internet.
  • To create stories that are especially beneficial for those with Profound Multiple Learning Disabilities or Special Educational Needs Disabilities (Send) by presenting stories in an inclusive way that offers meaningful experiences through sensory engagement – so that even the most profoundly disabled can take part.

The first step in developing this project was to speak with Send teachers, the Disability Collaborative Network and families to find out what they needed from local galleries and museums.

We discovered through these conversations that well-structured, inclusive, on-demand, online museum programming for children and young people was required.

The schools and communities requested resources that would allow children, young people and families to learn at home, have fun, and be creative at their own pace without being overwhelmed. This was especially important at a time when Covid was disproportionately affecting the health and wellbeing of disabled people.

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The second step of the process involved identifying our in-house expertise and deciding on what aspects of the project could be produced in-house and what aspects required an external resource. It also involved identifying the appropriate digital platforms to host all public-facing elements of the project.

We identified and engaged with local artists and writers with connections to South Shields and the museum’s collections to write the stories, and with a Foley artist in order to produce the accompanying sound library.

Sound recording, production of project activities, brand design, creation of marketing assets, population of the venue website with content were tasks undertaken by museum staff.

Challenges and outcomes

The challenge during this project was meeting the proposed deadline, which we unfortunately ran over by six weeks. This was down to two main issues. Firstly, Covid meant that the story recordings were made in two different environments, causing inconsistencies in the audio quality. We decided to re-record the audio to an acceptable standard.

Secondly, it took longer than anticipated to develop a brand identity, which delayed the launch of the project and distribution of the accompanying CD.

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Project costs

Stories£200
Foley artist£300
CDs£200
Advertising£510
Total project cost£1,210

With almost half million objects across Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, we would like to see all our venues have their own Sensory Journeys programme to bring their individual collections to life in a more inclusive and engaging way. We are actively seeking funding and partners to support and help develop this project further.

Project evaluation is ongoing, and primarily takes the form of an online survey, gathering feedback directly from local schools and families who have agreed to try Sensory Journeys for this purpose. Feedback collected from local schools and communities is integral to the future development of the project.

“The sensory stories are just right for the children in my class. The opportunities for them to explore the past through touching, seeing, hearing and smelling make the stories highly relevant to their level of learning. This is how to engage children with Send, particularly those whose needs are the most complex.”

Comment from Woodlawn Send School

For organisations that are seeking to do something similar, our advice would be to first engage with your intended audience to identify exactly what they need and what they want, then investigate how they might engage with the project.

Also, engage early on with your digital and design teams to ascertain how the project will be delivered to the intended audience. And discuss with your authors the importance of making the stories concise and full of original and rich sensory content.

Leslie Palanker is the assistant learning officer at South Shields Museum & Art Gallery 

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