Inviting sensory learners to explore Museums in a time of Covid, National Maritime Museum, Sept 2020.

At the National Maritime Museum, we recognise that the design of some older galleries does not lend them to sensory engagement and so a concerted effort to provide sensory engagement within new galleries and to develop resources that bring sensory engagement to galleries have occurred. From opportunities to touch tactile collection objects in the new Sea Things gallery, to the creation of a Sensory Explorers kit, recent projects have ensured that learners have multiple ways in to engage, including making use of every sense, and providing both facilitated and self-led opportunities to do so.

In 2018 we worked with local families, including SEND families, led by Vicky Cave, to explore how a self-led resource could provide daily sensory engagement in galleries. Families were invited to explore the use of tools in these spaces. They tested objects such as fabric and binoculars and played with creative ways of using them. They tested format and fed into the outputs including which learning objectives were important, such as ensuring choice and leadership opportunities were offered to all children, even those not using verbal communication. The kits have successfully provided an invitation for families to create their own sensory journey in all galleries and place sensory learning at the centre of the Museum visit.

Sensory seas

The pandemic has changed sensory learning, with touch causing concern and indoor spaces closed for months. The Museum has been closed since March and sensory activities in galleries have therefore been unavailable. This has led us to look outside, at the Museum grounds. Under-utilised as a learning space, but frequently used by families, the grounds offered a promising space to offer sensory engagement during closure. Working with Collar and Cuffs Co, we created an accessible trail putting sensory learners first. All activities are inspired by the collection and/or Museum themes, opening up what was closed, and encouraging families to use their sight, hearing, smell, vestibular and proprioceptive senses across 8 challenges. Families have been invited to re-engage with their surroundings using their senses.

Re-opening the Museum and Family Programme has created an opportunity to reflect on and respond to our role within the local community post-lockdown. For instance, better supporting local SEND families who have, in many instances, faced months of isolation and reduced support. We can be supportive by creating safe spaces that facilitate socialising with other families and use safe, sensory activities. We are piloting ‘SENsory Sailors’ a facilitated session for SEND families with children under 7. With sessions created with social distancing measures, and to provoke sensory learning and socialising, these workshops will explore Museum objects and themes. We will rebuild confidence in visiting museums and engaging in sensory activities in these spaces and, whilst we won’t be able to explore galleries from the start, we can explore the Polar regions, life on board a ship and so much more, from our learning spaces. When we can, we will begin to move into galleries, encouraging families to confidently explore these spaces using all their senses.

Sensory Explorers Backpack at the National Maritime Museum

Covid-19 has massively impacted the Museum experience, increasing concerns about touch and even visiting public spaces. However, it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our offers, responding to changing audience needs, and rethinking Museum experiences to ensure there’s something for every visitor.

Katie Cassels

Family Programmes Producer

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich


More on the National Maritime Museum Sensory Trails here –

The National Maritime Museum has been shortlisted for a ‘Fantastic For Families Award’ Best Family Venue – The winners will be announced on the 9th September 2020.

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