By Peter Nurick, Communities Producer, Access and Learning
Earlier this year V&A Dundee introduced Sensory Friendly Days, supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery and designed to welcome visitors who may benefit from a more relaxed sensorial environment. As part of these events, the museum unveiled brand new, updated sensory friendly backpacks to enhance the experience for visitors.
The sensory friendly backpacks – which are available to visitors year-round and also a key part of our Sensory Friendly days – build on V&A Dundee’s previous work relating to creating the museum’s permanent handling collection and multi-sensory resources for major exhibitions.
From personal experience, sensory resources at cultural venues can be fairly generic, often not relating to the collections on display and designed to distract and pacify, rather than engage and stimulate. This is why we have worked so hard to interrogate the exhibitions to extract themes and identify objects for which their interpretation can be improved.
It’s a well-documented fact that tactile objects can increase engagement, not just for audiences with additional support needs (ASN) or profound and multiple leading difficulties (PMLD), but also for general audiences who like to feel they are getting something “extra” from a visit. However, ensuring the resources meet the needs of the most liable to exclusion means we can create the most inclusive offer for all our visitors.
A starting point is often looking at the materiality of key objects in the exhibition; very few – if any – can be handled by visitors, and while many are on open display, this can be unclear. Tactile objects can alleviate issues with visitors being able to touch a replica of a particular object or material to better understand the item in the exhibition.
Another starting point is to identify gaps in the exhibition. Many of the stories are not told by objects, but by supporting text. For some, this can be difficult to read, so multisensory objects can bridge this gap, adding to the visual stimuli within an exhibition. 2D works can often be challenging, so tactile replicas can be created. However, it is worth noting that a tactile image may be less suitable than a fully 3D object that explores a theme, idea or detail within that work.
Any exhibition will have a finite number of objects, so it is more than likely there will be unexpected stories or surprising objects not featured. On several occasions, people have donated objects to an exhibition, but – for several reasons – they have been unable to be included. A suitable compromise is to – where appropriate – use them as tactile objects to add additional content for key groups and at key points during the exhibition’s run.
Lastly, the objects ought to provide a good overview of the entire exhibition. Normally divided into several rooms, ordered chronologically or thematically, the multi-sensory items should link to objects evenly distributed throughout the gallery to provide an accurate overview of the content, as well as practically spacing out the experience and avoiding bottlenecks for visitors using the items.
These considerations then intersect with what constitutes a multi-sensory object. Safety of our visitors and staff is of upmost importance, so items must be durable and safe to handle. Even prior to Covid-19, the ease of which they can be cleaned is also a key factor. We also need to consider the size and weight of the items, both for their storage and transport (usually in a wearable backpack – themed to the exhibition, naturally) but also to ensure they can be handled easily be a range of visitors from young children to those with limited strength and/or dexterity.
Obviously, a key consideration is the way visitors will interact with the objects themselves – they are chosen to have some form of multi-sensory quality, be it weight, texture, look, smell or sound, often a combination of these, but we do need to be mindful of the impact that loud or flashing items would have on someone, as well as other visitors in the exhibition. In some cases, we have been fortunate enough to select items from our own shop, enabling visitors to purchase something they have connected with in the galleries to take home.
Inside our current Night Fever-themed backpacks, visitors can find a miniature disco ball, swathes of gold fabric (to recreate that iconic Studio 54 look) and several light-up glowsticks and neon bracelets that echo the rave scene explored in the second half of the exhibition.
We have been grateful to work closely with PAMIS, a charity who support people with learning difficulties and complex health needs, to help work through these questions. They have been able to identify gaps in our knowledge to increase the accessibility of these multi-sensory resources. For example, it is best practice to avoid replica food items, both as people can mistake it for real food but also as many people with PMLD are unable to eat solid foods, so their depiction can be distressing.
To allow these resources to be used successfully during the pandemic, we created three identical backpacks, enabling them to be quarantined for 72 hours and still have one available for use within the museum. The neon-coloured transparent material of the backpacks was not only easier to clean than fabric but also allowed people to see the contents before opening it.
The key thing is that each object has both sensory qualities AND a connection to at least one object or theme within the exhibition. This allows museum staff to increase engagement with visitors of all ages and abilities, whilst simultaneously enabling people to enjoy a truly inclusive visit as a family.
You can find out more about the V&A Dundee here https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/
You can find out more about the V&A Dundee Sensory Days in this article from the Museums and Heritage Advisor https://advisor.museumsandheritage.com/news/va-dundee-will-close-to-general-public-to-enable-sensory-friendly-days/
The next V&A Dundee Sensory Day is on 19th October 2021. Please follow the link to book tickets https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/event/311/sensory-friendly-day