The Museums Association is among the partners in a research project exploring how access and inclusion can be transformed by putting disability at the centre of museum practice.
The £1m Sensational Museum project, which will acknowledge the diversity and difference of all visitors, begins in April and will run until July 2025. It will focus on two key areas: how museums manage the objects in their collections and how the stories behind these objects are communicated to the public.
The project is being led by Hannah Thompson, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London.
“Many people want or need to access and process information in ways that are not only, or not entirely, visual,” Thompson says. “But museums are very sight-dependent places. Let’s imagine a museum experience that plays to whichever senses work best for you. The project aims to give all visitors inclusive, engaging, enjoyable and memorable experiences.”
The team also includes social design specialist Anne Chick, University of Lincoln; psychologist Alison Eardley, University of Westminster; and Ross Parry, a professor of museum technology at the University of Leicester.
“The Sensational Museum project will do something we have never tried before – following a museum object through its journey," Parry says. “Right from being collected and entering the museum for the first time, through its moment of documentation, up to when it is displayed and experienced in exhibitions and public activities.
“As we follow that object, we will be able to trace and evidence what gets imposed by our systems and practices – the moments when sensory assumptions are made in describing and recording the object, and in the way museum staff are assumed to interact with it. We have the opportunity, in other words, to re-imagine a new accessible form of collections management – both for people visiting and working in museums.”
The sector lead for the project is Esther Fox, who leads Curating for Change, an initiative that supports d/Deaf, disabled and neurodiverse curators. The impact lead is Matthew Cock, the chief executive at VocalEyes, which works to ensure that blind and visually impaired people have the best possible opportunities to experience and enjoy art and heritage.
“We are delighted to partner with the Sensational Museum on this exciting initiative to really examine what museums mean for audiences and staff," Fox says. “Our work with Curating for Change puts disabled people at the heart of leading change within museums and we are excited to support the Sensational Museum in building on this approach.”
Other project partners include Barker Langham, Collections Trust, Group for Education in Museums, The Museum Platform, Scottish Museums Federation, Wellcome Collection and AVM Curiosities.