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By Fiona Slater on

Sensory Friendly Museums

We’ve been thinking about sensory access across our sites. The Science Museum Group contains a number of large, often busy galleries with exhibits and interactives to stimulate all the senses, but what are the implications of these for visitors and colleagues with Sensory Access requirements?

Claire Madge, behind the organisation, Autism in Museums, reflects on her recent work with us and we share some new resources – a first step to thinking in more depth about our sensory environment.

Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with the Science Museum Group over the years?

I first visited Early Birds at the Science Museum with family way back in 2013. It was our first family visit to the museum and the first time we had gone to an autism early opening: I didn’t realise such things existed! I wrote a blog post about our experience as we had such a great time. It was read by so many people that it made me realise how important these types of events are.

I got in touch with the Science Museum team to find out the steps involved in putting on the event. Since then, I have been encouraging other museum to run similar events. I started Autism in Museums to work with museums to improve their offer for autistic visitors. The Science Museum team have always been happy to share their expertise with other organisations.

My family and I have continued to visit Early Birds regularly and it was great to see relaxed events returning after the pandemic. In the last couple of years, it has been brilliant to work more closely with the museum team to improve accessibility. It has been encouraging to see how autism access had developed into the SENsory Astronights sleepovers and Night Owls for older autistic visitors.

A woman with dark curly hair and glasses concentrates on cutting shapes out of colour paper
Visitor enjoys night Owl activities at the Science Museum

Most recently you have been supporting us to create new resources; a visual story and sensory map. Can you tell us a bit about this process?

Although visual stories already existed, these were usually only sent out specifically for Early Birds events. Autism in Museums has been working with SMG on visual stories and a sensory map which will be up permanently on the website.

Autism is a spectrum that affects people in different ways so it was essential that we spoke to different families and young adults to get a sense of what they needed from a visual story and sensory map.

These not only benefits visitors coming to accessible events, but also those who visit in regular hours too. A visual story and sensory map can support lots of visitors; you don’t have to be autistic. If you are a bit anxious about visiting or have sensory sensitivities, it can help you plan and prepare for a visit.

Science and Industry Museum Visual Story
Science Museum Visual Story and Sensory Map

Young visitor, wearing a top covered in eyes, moves through long yellow strings
Visitor enjoying Early Birds at the Science Museum

There has been a vast increase in the number of out of hours and relaxed events happening over the last ten years. What have been some of the biggest improvements you’ve noticed and what are the ongoing barriers?

The biggest improvements are the variation in events – autistic children grow up into autistic adults so seeing relaxed options for young adults and adults is a big step forward. Working with the British Museum on their relaxed early opening was a highlight as half of the families who came to the museum were visiting for the first time.

Also a number of museums are offering relaxed events at different times – not just early in the morning, which can be really challenging to get to. The Postal Museum and the V&A Dundee have run relaxed days. This is brilliant as it gives families the choice to visit at a time that suits them.

While there has been a rapid increase in events, the pandemic meant a lot of these disappeared. In terms of barriers it is a shame the relaxed events still aren’t as regular as they could be. They also aren’t normally funded out of core museum budgets and rely on external funding from foundations and charities which means it is a continual battle to keep them running.

As soon as relaxed events are seen as an essential part of what a museum offers, the sooner there will be a more flexible and regular offer.

The Science and Industry Museum are holding relaxed sessions connected to their headline exhibition Turn it Up: Turn it Up relaxed sessions. 

The Science Museum continue to run relaxed Early Birds and Night Owls events.

Locomotion host monthly Early Bird sessions: Locomotion Early Birds. 

The National Science and Media Museum are holding a relaxed screening of The Muppet Christmas Carol on 19 December 2022.

Sensory access will continue to be a consideration for all major gallery redevelopments including our Wonderlab interactive gallery at the National Railway Museum, the Sound & Vision project at the National Science and Media Museum, and Power Hall at the Science and Industry Museum.