Esther Amis-Hughes, Leeds Museums and Galleries
In 2018 a wonderful opportunity stumbled into my lap – Tim Boardman from the Study Programme within Swarthmore Education Centre (a setting for 16-24 year olds with learning disabilities and additional support needs) was looking for placements for students. I had very little experience of working with autistic or neurodivergent young adults – which is important because my ignorance made a person-led approach imperative.
Our first placement had mixed success – I was working on a co-curated display and invited the students to get involved. Within the predetermined theme of ‘enterprise’ and the outcome of ‘exhibition’, they curated a fantastic display about historical enterprise in Leeds, but I was uneasy about being so prescriptive.
Never one to learn a lesson until I’ve made the same mistake several times, I approached the next placement in a similar way – with an outcome, and a timescale. However, when T and I began working together, I could see he wasn’t particularly interested in the outcome I was suggesting or any of the themes I tried to mind map with him, but he was very interested in dinosaurs and fossils. I admitted defeat and stopped planning and started listening. Together we came up with a new project, which would engage T’s passion and create a dinosaur object box for the museum. We worked at his pace and adapted the content and outcome together. This was a much more successful approach.
I was starting to get the message, it was not the content that needed to be co-produced, but the project itself. Occasionally the parameters of programming in museums makes full co-curation difficult, but it was very satisfying to build a relationship with the Study Programme where they could make referrals to our bespoke placements. They may say ‘I have a student interested in LGBT+ history’, or ‘I have a student desperate to organise a music event’, and the student, the college and I would work together to co-produce the opportunity.
Over time I started to learn more about how autistic and neurodivergent young adults were accessing the museum. I began to see ways we could support them and make the museum more inclusive. In 2021 we had the opportunity to train a small group of students to become consultants for the new Neurodiverse Museum project, run by Justine Reilly at Sporting Heritage. The results profoundly changed how I thought about museum galleries, collections, and opportunities. In particular I was frustrated at how much of the potential workforce was excluded from working in museums because our recruitment procedures (and many of our other procedures) are geared towards neurotypical people. What an enormous loss to our sector, and one which we must all take responsibility to change.
I’m very grateful to the Study Programme at Swarthmore Education Centre, the Neurodiverse Museum and most of all the young adults that have worked on these projects. I have learnt so much from the privilege of co-producing experiences, and you have all been very tolerant of my mistakes and ignorance.
You can read more about this approach from Sammy – Autistic Experiences in Museums