By Michael McConway
In my experience, a museum is an accessible window into other cultures, a contemplative, quiet place of learning and reflection. Interactions with visitors in the galleries of my local museums in Northern Ireland, whether the larger National Museums Northern Ireland sites or regional heritage centres, can provide a rich vein of networking with others who feel strongly about social issues refracted through the context of the past.
With lived experiences of autism, museums offer a safe space to communicate with visitors and engage with our shared pasts through objects and storytelling. For an individual from a neurodiverse background, objects are key to bridging the gap between formal and informal communication. As a part-time Visitor Guide with Ulster Museum, I can present several talks to large groups without anxiety, so long as my words are pre-planned and formal. By contrast, initiating just one informal face-to-face, unplanned, unscripted conversation can cause an onset of nerves and dread.
Though the museum environment is a vital space of communication and development for children and young people with autism, there are several barriers to full engagement with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) audiences who are gaining their first impressions of their local institution. In Northern Ireland, museums have become busy, customer facing environments where tailored 1-1 interactions between the ASD community and Visitor Guides have become sparse. The resulting noise pollution, absorbed as a wealth of text and audio-visual context is being processed in each gallery, can lead to stimulus overload.
These barriers are by no means insurmountable, and institutions have taken action to be more accommodating for children and families with autism. The Ulster Museum has supported the incorporation of oral testimony and narrated text into exhibition design with the ‘Collecting the Past, Making the Future’ exhibition, which ran until September 2021 and saw young people from ‘Reimagine Remake Replay’ and the ‘Making the Future’ projects at the Nerve Centre record their own interpretations of the objects on display and present them to the public. As participant with the design, I was trained in digital recording and audio editing skills to offer my interpretations of objects from the partition of Ireland to the present day, working in a team with fellow participants to coordinate our historical content and practical path finding text for inclusion in the audio clips. Recording little snippets on the themes from Belfast Confetti to the Good Friday Agreement, this project gave me the chance to find my own voice as a stakeholder within the museum.
Working in the sector alongside my studies with institutions such as Titanic Belfast and the Ulster Museum in a visitor engagement capacity, I would like to see further provision of time and resources for 1-1 interactions with young people from neurodiverse backgrounds by trained Visitor Guides. Furthermore, to support the ASD community I think we can do more in museums to create a network of quiet spaces where young people with autism can practise social interaction and reflect on the objects they have viewed. It is crucial that museums should invest in enriching the experiences of young people with autism, for first impressions will shape how they interact with their local institution for life. We must remember to engage with individual children with autism as well as parents, who are often treated as gatekeepers to the enjoyment of their children. Autistic children are skilled in assimilating knowledge, and by becoming stakeholders in their local museums, can build their confidence to share this with others.
With participation in the ‘Reimagine Remake Replay’ (RRR) project, I can see museums in Northern Ireland becoming more receptive to the needs of neurodiverse audiences. This four year project hosted by the Nerve Centre has allowed young people to prompt change in how we access collections and stories in museums. Delivered by young people for young people, working in a team with unique fellow participants to deliver heritage projects has allowed me to find a voice in a post pandemic world. Our meetings in 2021, almost always on Zoom, have been the highlight of my week, a cultural oasis where creativity and storytelling through objects can come to the fore.
With the RRR LGBTQIA Steering Panel, I learned about how attitudes towards the queer community in Northern Ireland have slowly changed to be more inclusive, gaining the opportunity to develop oral history interviewing skills in speaking to stakeholders from the community to submit a piece of written testimony to the ‘Sam’s Eden’ project at Catalyst Arts NI.
As a programmer with the ‘Head and Heart Festival’, I was given the chance to put my views across on how we can use music to self-regulate the well-being of young people with autism, organising an industry panel over the festival weekend to promote the theme. At the ‘Playback Virtual Film Festival’, I presented a 70 minute event on nostalgia and audiences in film with Museum Assistant Leanne Briggs from the North Down Museum, who shared the objects in their collection which commemorate ‘The Tonic in Bangor’, an Art Deco cinema which shut in the eighties. Working in an exhibition text writing team, I offered my knowledge of industrial history in Belfast to write a label accompanying an exhibition in the Portview Trade Centre, a former linen mill. I was keen to link the fine art of the Dutch artist to the fine art linen damasks produced by working class women in the linen industry in Victorian and Edwardian Belfast.
‘Reimagine Remake Replay’ have forged partnerships with heritage institutions in Norther Ireland and broken down the engagement barriers for young people with autism who have a keen interest in their natural history and the social histories of their communities. I would urge other museums to aim to do the same, making young people stakeholders in their exhibition design and visitor engagement for the future.
You can find out more about the ‘Reimagine, Remake, Replay’ project by visiting their website – https://reimagineremakereplay.org/