Sensory storytelling and sign language training will engage nonverbal visitors - Museums Association

Sensory storytelling and sign language training will engage nonverbal visitors

Words can get in the way of a good museum experience, says Sam Bowen
Profile image for Sam Bowen
Sam Bowen
Lucy is Sam Bowen's daughter

Lucy has the best smile in the world, and she loves music, art and museums. Lucy is classed as having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and being “nonverbal”.

She might not immediately seem like someone who would be interested in your venue, but she loves the trips we share to heritage settings.

I am her mum. I run the SEND in Museums website, which has an influence globally on the access people such as my daughter have to museums.

There are several things that museums can try to engage more with this audience.

Think of communication as coming in two halves: that which is understood (received communication) and that which is given (expressive communication), and consider how you can do these things without relying on words.


Most of us have communicated with a nonverbal person when we talk to babies. We modulate our tone – usually higher in pitch – use single or simple words or short sentences and repeat those, unconsciously using rhyme, repetition and rhythm.

We almost certainly use hand gestures, exaggerated facial expressions or props such as toys to aid what we are saying. Lucy is not a baby, but all of these skills can amplify her experience of communication if done in an age-appropriate way.

Families of children who don’t have the ability to use words learn different ways to communicate, and when you employ these means within your setting, they benefit –and so do other visitors.

As a family, we use symbols – often from Widgit – with Lucy. Some visitors may access these via an app on an iPad with a speech output turning them into a spoken “voice”. 

I would encourage museums to use symbols in their engagement – everything from the visitor welcome and navigation to collections interpretation, learning activity and evaluation feedback can use these effectively to unlock two-way communication.

Symbols fall midway along a “path of communication” after photos and before text. 


I also suggest more museums train their staff in sign language such as British Sign Language for D/deaf and Makaton for SEND and learning-disabled visitors. Both are game changers in terms of accessing your venue and bringing an equitable experience for more people.

Some people will not be able to use symbols as Lucy does, and may not have access to any standardised forms of communication. For these people, communication is fully embodied – it is sensory.

So if you want to “talk” to them, you need to express this in a sensory way by using the sights, sounds, touches, smells and tastes of your setting. 

And if you want to listen to them, listen with all of your senses. Notice the sounds they make, look at the way in which their body moves and look for expressions – but do not rely on them being able to make them. Notice fully and your instincts can hear them.

When it comes to activities, discover how sensory storytelling can bring to life objects and subjects for all visitors. 

So remember, just because someone isn’t waxing lyrical about the subjects in your venue, it doesn’t mean they don’t fully appreciate them or engage meaningfully with them.


If a picture can speak a thousand words without uttering one, think how many your setting can convey if you move beyond words to make connections with visitors.

Have a go yourselves: take your team around the museum and don’t speak – try to engage and be present in a different way and see what you feel and notice. You will be surprised just how much words can get in the way of a good experience.

Sam Bowen is an inclusion campaigner in museums and founder of SEND in Museums. Her consulting website is

Sam Bowen is speaking at this year’s Museums Association Conference in Newcastle/Gateshead (7-9 November).

There are some useful links here:;;;;; 

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