Making Things, Doing Things

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On Thursday 26 October a gang of ‘digital curious’ museum folk discovered cheap and easy ways to start using technology at their museum. Led by Paul Clifford we made robots, programmed micro:bits and found the ‘Maker’ within us.

“Instead of learning about our technology we opt for a world in which our technology learns about us.” Douglas Rushkoff

 

The Maker Movement

The Maker Movement is a global community of people making and sharing their objects through events and the internet. A ‘Maker’ might build furniture, bake cakes or engineer robots but, whatever the activity, at the core of the Maker Movement is a belief in democratisation, social learning, collaboration and self-empowerment.

For Makers who are interested in digital technology, they might enjoy electronics, robotics, 3-D printing blended with more traditional crafts like metalworking, woodworking, arts and crafts. A Maker might build something from scratch or tinker with existing technology.

The Kit

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Makey Makey – have you ever wanted to make a banana piano or turn your hands into buttons? Then the Makey Makey is the kit for you! The Makey Makey is a simple circuit board onto which you can attach crocodile clips to turn anything into a button. Cost: £50 approx.

micro:bit – a microcontroller that you can simply programme to do different things, like direct motors, flash lights or play sounds. Using the MakeCode.org website you can programme a micro:bit really easily following the instructions on the micro:bit website. In 2016 the BBC distributed a micro:bit to every year 7 child in Britain, so many schools already have a supply of these. Cost: £12 approx.

Servo:Lite – a type of servoboard. A servoboard is a device that controls motors or mechanisms (technically known as servomotors or servomechanisms), for example turning wheels, switching lights on and off or playing a noise. The Servo:Lite is controlled by the micro:bit (or other microcontroller).

ZIP Halo – a circular board that has a ring of flashing lights, which you can programme using the micro:bit. Cost: £12 approx.

Motor and wheels – moving wheels that you can attach to your Servo:Lite, which you can programme using your micro:bit. Cost: £8 approx.

Arduino – an electronics platform for making interactive projects. An Arduino senses the environment through sensors and you can tell an Arduino what to do by writing code in the Arduino programming language. Cost varies depending on what you buy.

Touch board – you can use this to turn any material or surface into a sensor, so you could paint a light switch on a wall, make a paper piano or create an interactive poster. Cost: £60 approx.

Raspberry Pi – a tiny, affordable computer that you can use to learn programming. You can plug it into a monitor and it comes with its own operating system. Cost: £30 – 40 approx.

Conductive Paint – you could use this to paint buttons or circuits.

Little:Bits – really simple electronic kit that lets you build circuits. Lots of fun to play with and great for absolute beginners.

Extras – crocodile clips, batteries, keyboards, monitors, copper tape, etc.

There are countless extras you could buy depending on what you’re interested in!

(Please note that these products are available from a range of sources.)

How can we use this technology in our museums?

Some museums are doing all kinds of amazing things – from massive digital projects to cheap and cheerful kids’ events. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Build a Robot – using craft materials, motor wheels, micro:bit and Servolite you can create simple robots that wheel around and draw shapes.

Maker Trolley – short on space in your museum? No problem – why not try a trolley loaded with craft materials, and a few simple bits of technology to get kids playing.

Cardboard Instruments – cut out guitars and pianos from cardboard and use Makey Makeys to turn these into intruments. Check out the Makey Makey website for different ideas.

There are lots of blogs and websites full of ideas with easy to follow instruction. Check out the following for inspiration:

https://makezine.com/projects/

https://www.makerspaces.com/makerspace-ideas/

https://learn.adafruit.com/

https://www.kitronik.co.uk/blog/kitronik-university/

https://www.raspberrypi.org/education/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/connectedstudio/toolkit

https://situate.io/

https://smartify.org/

Don’t have the technology?

No problem – you can borrow the Essex Museum Development’s digital learning library for free.

Why not try contacting local businesses to ask if you can have their old computers, keyboards, tablets, etc if they’re throwing them away?

Contact Makers and technology producers to ask if they might loan you equipment or donate some to your museum. Check out the list below for ideas of who you might contact:

Raspberry Pi Foundation

BBC micro:bits

Mini Maker Foundation

Your local ‘Code Club’ or local Makers

Crafts Council (also potential funders!)

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If you’re interested in using digital technology but aren’t sure where to get started, come along to the next Heritage Education Group meeting where we will be playing with the technology library. We will be meeting on Tuesday 5 December at the Essex Records Office. Contact me for more information and to book.

Learning & Engagement Grants For Essex Museums

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Essex Museum Development is offering grants of up to £500 to support the delivery of learning and community engagement using collections.

The grants aim to support local museums to:

  1. Develop relationships with local education providers including schools, colleges and home education groups
  2. Develop new learning and engagement resources
  3. Develop an adult learning offer
  4. Deliver activities which will reach new audiences
  5. Make their venue more accessible for disabled audiences

The funding scheme is open to any Accredited museum (or museum registered as Working Towards Accreditation) within the Essex or Southend-on-Sea local authority boundaries. Please note that to apply you must have attended at least two of the following training days:

It is important to read the guidance document before applying. It contains some suggestions as to what the grant can be used for, but this is not an exhaustive list. Please do get in contact if you wish to discuss your ideas.

To apply, complete this application form and return it to amy.cotterill@essex.gov.uk by 5pm on Tuesday 23rd January 2018

Learning and Engagement application guidance 2018

Click here to download the application form

 

New Audiences Day 2017

“Nothing without us about us is for us.”

This day explored the different ways in which we can engage with new audiences through case studies and group discussion. I’ve briefly summarised the presentations below but just get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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Young Roots – Dawn Bainbridge, Development Officer, Heritage Lottery Fund
Dawn discussed HLF’s Young Roots programme, covering how you can go about applying, what HLF look for and examples to inspire you. Successful projects focus on people learning skills in an in-depth and meaningful way. HLF have relaxed their rules about Young Roots projects being initiated by a group of young people, but they still must take the lead, e.g. steering group.

 You’re Doing It Already – embedding Arts Award into Museum Learning, Melissa Hawker, Learning Officer, Norfolk Museums Service
Melissa spoke about embedding Arts Award into school workshops and youth engagement projects, including Takeover Day and co-curating. The children shouldn’t feel like they are ‘writing up’ their log books, these should be treated as baskets to catch their learning and fill up naturally. Norfolk Museums Service run youth clubs starting from babies, which children taking more control of their learning as they develop. Starting early is a vital part of supporting young people to feel that the museum is a ‘place for them’. They do not advertise these groups in museums as the young people feel very strongly that the clubs are separate to schools and this is particularly important if school isn’t a positive experience. The youth clubs are free and this is key to their broad socio-economic appeal.

Engaging Diverse Local Audiences – Emma Winch, Heritage Learning Manager, Hackney Museum
Hackney Museum is internationally renowned for engaging diverse local audiences in the development of the museum and its exhibitions, programmes and projects that support audiences from all over the world to understand where their story fits within British history. Emma stated that there is no tool kit for engagement, you must employ the right people and work to a shared ethos. The most successful projects are not ones that ‘happen to’ community groups but where the community and the museum meet on mutual ground to create a relationship that grows into different projects. Hackney Museum supports local groups to campaign and Hackney Council often uses the museum as a space where people can have difficult conversations and community members come to council meetings. It’s important that changes made from their involvement is passed on to the community groups.

Diversifying your Audiences through Diversifying your Workforce – Rachel Macfarlane, Projects Development Officer, and Lib Fox, Museums Projects Officer, Colchester + Ipswich Museums
Colchester + Ipswich Museums shared a number of case studies from two years of Training Museum traineeships. The service has welcomed eleven Trainees from a variety of backgrounds, and they have helped us engage new audiences through work with schools and community groups, as well as social media. People who hadn’t considered working in museums before were targeted through the trainee recruitment. The applicants were asked to complete a very short form and submit a video and those shortlisted attended a group interview day with activities, discussion time and a very short interview. This more involved process provided greater insight into the attitudes of the individuals than the traditional format. In addition CIMS changed their volunteering to offer short, fixed-term posts with the application process making it clear what the volunteer would gain from their experience.

Jaywick Inspires – Kerith Ririe, Jaywick Martello Tower Manager
Jaywick Martello Tower supports creative collaborations relating to the themes of community, heritage and environment that affect our lives today. The Tower runs as an innovative arts, heritage and community space which successfully engages with its local community in Jaywick. The Tower Manager Kerith Ririe will discussed how the Tower has successfully engaged with its community and the plans for development. Many organisations are keen to work with Jaywick as it’s a well-known area of deprivation but the communities may not want to work with them. Jaywick Martello Tower offers food and refreshments at their activities to ensure that the participants aren’t hungry and better able to join in. How can we expect to engage an audience whose basic needs aren’t being met? The Tower used a cost benefit analysis tool to evidence that for every £1 invested, they reduced the spend in other services by £11.70.

By Thames to All the People of the World – Indi Sandhu, Essex Cultural Diversity Project, Essex Cultural Diversity Project Manager
Thurrock Routes is a joint working project between Essex Cultural Diversity Project (ECDP) and Thurrock Museum. The project focuses on the cultural heritage of Thurrock’s communities from 1930 – 2004 and draws on each organisation’s expertise to ensure that Thurrock’s heritage captures and responds to its specific and unique place in UK history and has engages with the diverse communities of Thurrock in bring new audiences to the Museum. This project saw a 15% rise in BME visitors to Thurrock Museum, something which they hope to build on.

Mercury Theatre- Martin Russell, Head of Creative Learning and Talent, Mercury Theatre
Martin spoke about hACkT, the Mercury Theatre’s creative digital offer for young people. hACkT is a summer school that allows young people to create a piece of theatre through a combination of traditional drama activities and technology, video game design and coding. The Mercury Theatre used vlogging to record experiences as opposed to traditional methods of recording, as this ties in with the participants interests and builds their skills. Schools have started hiring in hACKT for term time to meet their STEM requirements.

Breakout Group discussions:
Please note that these are transcriptions from the notes written on the day.
Breakout Group: Getting Started
• Avoid tokenism – do locational work, e.g school or street and don’t compartmentalise or label groups
• Start by mapping/research/listen to what people say. Possibly go where they go, restaurants, cafes, barbers, gyms, etc
• Educate yourself – go out and look and listen
• Be open and flexible – why would people want to come in? Community space/venue or support needed
• Consider throwing away what you do already is you are not attracting a diverse audience
• Juggling with what you already do – keep the good stuff (who decides what is good?)
• How do you change minds of staff?
• Get dates of who visits and build a profile
• Activity suggestions – winter warmer, food and drinks, hot chocolate, mocktails
• Focus groups – maybe not good for the first thing you do but could come later as a tool to plan for next steps
• Choose topics relevant to everyone, e.g. goof and drink, dinosaurs, music and dance, love, games, etc
• Most important thing: build relationships
Breakout Group: How do diversify your recruitment practice?
• Use friendly language that prevents people from understanding the forms/adverts
• Value attitudes rather than qualifications
• Spend more time with applicants – consider group interview days and see how they work in a team
• Include list of what training/benefits the volunteer will receive in return for their time
Breakout Group: Challenges
• Public perceptions of topics, e.g. death
• Capitalising on what you’re known for and expand on it
• Setting the right tone with difficult history/challenging topics
• Using museums as a visual learning space
• Need bigger teams
• Need for advocacy – shout louder about how unhelpful short-term funding is
• Condition of dunging to share outcomes/content more widely
• Curriculum content
Breakout Group: Capturing Feedback- evaluating the intangible
• Twitter – capture and share softer outcomes – Storify/metrics?
• Have conversations rather than feedback forms
• Staff/volunteers can be uncomfortable asking specifically for feedback
• Do we rely too much on paper feedback forms?
• Use SHARE evaluation tool kit
• Requirement for specific information from funders can be difficult
• Work with community members to design evaluation – co-produce methodology
• Ask questions with confidence and interest

WIRE: Wikipedians in Residence Essex

Wikipedians (or Wikimedians) in Residence are volunteers who dedicate time to working in-house at a museum or gallery, creating and updating Wikipedia articles related to that organisation and its collection. They are not simply an in-house editor: the role is also about enabling the host organisation and its members to continue a productive relationship with Wikipedia and its community of editors after the Residency is finished.

Wikipedia describes the idea here
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedian_in_residence

The Fry Gallery, Stow Maries Aerodrome, Essex Police Museum, Combined Military Services Museum and Chelmsford Museum will all be hosting a Wikipedian this autumn as a part of the WIRE project.

WIRE has only just started, and we’ll report back with our learning in a few months. In the meantime, if you’d like to explore updating your museum’s Wikipedia presence (even if you haven’t set one up yourselves, check Wikipedia as a page about your museum probably already exists) you can use the guide below.

Writing for Wikipedia

Be aware that new articles are ‘patrolled’ shortly after submission and if your article is not thought to comply with Wikipedia’s guidelines it will be deleted.

Articles submitted to Wikipedia should be written from a neutral point of view. Content must be
• unbiased
• verifiable
• noteworthy
• must not breach copyright

Think of it as writing an entry for a printed encyclopaedia. Entries should be written in an informational and neutral style rather than a marketing style. If possible facts should be supported by references.

Images should be the copyright of your Museum and be prepared for them to be downloaded and used once you have added them to an article. Consider using a Creative Commons licence to retain copyright while allowing others to use the images. You can find out more about licenses here – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/ Wikipedia expects editors to grant free content licences – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Commons_license

Before you start do a search on Wikipedia to make sure that someone else hasn’t already written an entry- duplicates will be deleted.

Consider if your article will meet Wikipedia’s ‘worthy of note’ conditions. Just advertising the existence of a museum is unlikely to but adding an article on a collection probably will. Entries should be strengthened by references (preferably online) and an article with no references is likely to be deleted.

There is some good advice here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Your_first_article

Wikipedia also provides a wizard to help with writing your first article – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Article_wizard

A good tutorial can be found here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Tutorial

Creating an Account
It is possible to write for and edit Wikipedia without an account but there are several good reasons to create an account for your museum.
• It will give entries more authority
• A number of reliable entries from the same source will build a good online reputation
• You can pick a recognisable user name
• You will have a user page with subpage called a ‘sandbox’ where you can experiment with writing and formatting an entry before submitting it

To Create an Account
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:CreateAccount&returnto=Wikipedia%3AWhy_create_an_account%3F

Logging Your Steps
It’s a good idea to keep a log of your research and make sure you have a note of all the sources you have used along with web links. This makes it easy for you to respond to any queries about your entry and will also leave useful information for the museum should you not be available.

Working with Home Educated Groups at Chelmsford Museum

Yvonne Lawrence, Chelmsford Museum, reflects on her developing work with home educated groups.

There is a large body of parents in Essex who elect to home educate their children. There are many reasons for this, and they are supported by Essex County Council and a range of self-led groups, some of whom organise formal learning sessions with Chelmsford Museums.

With museum education we are used to starting with very little prior information about the participants compared to a school teacher and when working with a group of home educated children this challenge is magnified because the age and ability range is very much larger, typically with participants aged between 4 to 12.  There may be additional special needs including those on the autistic spectrum, with ADHD, dyslexia or with social, behavioural or emotional difficulties.  Often there is a participant in the group who has a special interest in the subject who will be extremely knowledgeable alongside others who know much less.  In an ideal world we would like a full list of participants and any special needs and are working towards this, acknowledging that the situation is much more complex for the visit organiser than for a school.

Chelmsford Museum has been working in partnership with group organisers to ensure that home educated children are able to participate in our history, science and Arts Award sessions at both the main museum and at Sandford Mill. Our first big decision was to limit the group size to a maximum of 17 participants with whole group staying together during the session and led by one tutor.  Given that most participants come with an adult and perhaps a younger sibling or two, this still leads to more people in the room than a standard class and in retrospect we should perhaps have made the limit smaller-perhaps as few as ten participants.  But this would be comparatively expensive for parents/carers as we would still have to cover the tutoring costs and splitting them between fewer people means more cost per person.  Where the visit organiser wanted to book more than one session we explored ways in which younger children could book the morning session whilst older ones came to the afternoon session.  This was reasonably successful.

Home educated children have the luxury of learning at their own pace with a very flexible child-centred learning experience. Unlike a school with set break times and lunch hour, we found that the children seemed to be constantly grazing, eating snacks during the sessions.  The participants and younger siblings would then touch the artefacts, which really wasn’t doing the artefacts any good and posed a hygiene hazard.  We can’t just put our artefacts in a washing up bowl, after all!  So we worked with the group organiser to request that parents were advised of a no-eating rule in the sessions and why this was important, plus reinforcing the need to wash hands after eating.  We provided a trolley outside our education room for food and drinks; and we made a positively-worded request at the start of each session explaining why this was needed and and making it clear people were welcome to step out to eat whenever they wanted to.

To deal with the wide variety of ages, abilities and interests we adapted the format of the sessions to include a very short introduction and overview of what the session entailed with expectations for behaviour – participants and adults! People responded very positively and I think it helped everyone get the most out of the experience.  Typically setting expectations involves explaining the session format and establishing rules such as one person speaking at a time and putting their hand up if they wanted to ask a question during the introduction.  For parents it is worth mentioning active involvement, supervising their children, turning phones to silent and the eating-outside rule.  I always then check if that is OK with the group so we can all get the most out of the learning experience.  Fortunately the answer to that question has always been ‘yes’!

It can be hard to identify which children are taking part in the session so we have tried to set up a separate starter area for participants and parents/siblings. At the museum we often use foam mats on the floor for those taking part during the initial introduction, with parents/siblings seated behind and around them.  Once we establish our participants we start by asking a few questions to establish prior knowledge before introducing tables with a range of different activities linked to the topic.  It works well not to try to regiment the movement of participants as much as a school group, so we normally suggest the participants go off to explore the activities in any order giving an overall time limit to help people plan.  The tables have information cards for the adults with suggested activities, and the only advice we gave was to try to choose tables that weren’t too busy rather than all crowding around the same one.  There are times when we had to accept that a participant was finding it more interesting to sit in the corner playing games on their phone instead of taking part in the session.  They had their reasons, and we take the view that whilst it was our responsibility to provide suitable learning activities it was the participants’ responsibility to engage with them during the session and the supervising adults’ responsibility to intervene (or not) when it came to level of participation.

At the end of each session we come together to discuss what the participants had discovered and answer any questions that arose. Although most of our sessions normally run for two hours, timings are much more fluid with home educator groups and if we do finish a little earlier – or later – that is what we do.  At the end of each session, it is very rewarding to note the number of participants and parents who come up to us to thank us for running the session.  As one mum said to me recently “We appreciate what you are doing.  We know we aren’t the easiest groups to work with because we are all so different so thank you.” And that’s what makes it all worthwhile for us – being able to make that difference!

Rising Tide: Navigating the Future of Cultural Learning

Royal Opera House Bridge Annual Conference 2017

Chatham Historic Dockyard, 29.06.2017

I’m lucky enough in this role to attend training pretty often and I often see inspirational people discuss the importance of the work of the heritage sector and hear incredible case studies. I won’t write about all of them, but I did want to share what I learnt at Rising tide: Navigating the Future of Cultural Learning, the annual conference of Royal Opera House Bridge. This conference interrogated the role of cultural education, from dance to museums and opera to archives.

We’re all busy people, so I’ll try and keep this blog short and I haven’t included all the sessions. If you’d like to chat about anything below, just get in touch. The Royal Opera House Bridge will be publishing resources from the day, so check out their website for more details.

Why Tomorrow’s Children Need a 21st Century Enlightenment (Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)

Matthew kicked off the conference by taking us back to the 1700s and the Age of Enlightenment. He described the three key ideas that shaped the Enlightenment:

  1. Autonomy – we are the authors of our own future and not in a chain of control that was preordained and we must simply accept our fate in life.
  2. Universalism – all humans deserve dignity.
  3. Humanism – purpose of all human endeavour is to liberate and enrich human life.

These ideas have become narrowed over time. Autonomy doesn’t just mean a free market, universalism isn’t just a metric of social justice and humanism isn’t controlled through the economy. We must revisit these values to bring them up to date:

  1. True autonomy requires self-awareness and self-discipline… not through shopping.
  2. Universalism is about empathy and engaging with those whose beliefs and ideas are different to ours.
  3. We need to identify what a good life is to understand humanism. What are we working towards?

Engagement in the creation and enjoyment of culture helps us understand these ideas.

So what is the role of cultural education? Cultural education makes three assertions:

  1. Citizens have a right to access their own, their countries’ and the world’s culture.
  2. Cultural education supports young people to develop positive ways of shaping society (and we need a robust way of measuring this impact that will appeal to budget holders).
  3. Cultural education has a role in preparing us for our future.

We are starting to move into a late material culture, with more people stating that self-expression is more important than what they own. People are coming of age in a sluggish economy and don’t expect to own more and better things than their parents. It should be our ambition to ensure that everyone has ‘good’ work with scope for development and a sense of purpose. If we shift into this new kind of economy, cultural education will be more important than ever.

To Lift All Ships (Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive, Education Endowment Foundation)

Sir Kevan challenged the conference with a series of provocations, but made the assertion that when people want to challenge the world, they turn to culture.

  1. Are we creating a boring and irrelevant education for children?
  2. Should we be concerned that creative subjects are becoming sidelined into extra-curricular activities for the middle-classes? For many people the educational system seems broken and there isn’t time to focus on anything but ‘core subjects’. Is this true, or is this argument to trick us into giving schools to other people to run?
  3. Is the word ‘culture’ being appropriated by people who see education as either skills for knowledge. Through setting culture as ‘knowledge’ are they able to decide what counts as culture?
  4. How can a child spend 13 years in education and fail? Huge numbers of children are failing to get a level 2 (e.g. GCSE) qualification.
  5. As the education offered to children narrows, how do we demonstrate the contribution that culture makes?

Most job growth in Britain and the world doesn’t require just one subject but needs people with broader life skills, for example relationship development, empathy and creative problem solving. A strong cultural education builds these kind of skills and supports the core subjects.

We must implement a scientific approach to measure the impact of cultural education, disseminate what we’ve learnt from projects and mobilise good projects nationally.

Empathy Lab (Miranda McKearney, social entrepreneur and co-founder of Empathy Lab and Sarah Mears, Library Manager for Essex and co-founder of Empathy Lab)

Miranda and Sarah argued that in an increasingly diverse world children must be able to thrive in diverse environments. Empathy and social skills are being squeezed out of education and these are vital to children’s attainment at school and preparation for their futures.

Research has shown that children must see and experience empathy to develop these skills. Socio-emotional skills cannot be a bolt-on but can be embedded in a child’s wider education. The Empathy Lab is trialling developing empathy skills through reading, which is at the core of educational programming in schools.

Empathy can be divided into psychological and physiological:

  1. Psychological Empathy:
    1. Cognitive – understanding that someone is upset
    2. Affective – feeling upset when someone is sad
    3. Empathetic concern – wanting to help someone in need
  2. Physiological Empathy:
    1. Endocrine system
    2. Mirror-neurons

If you’re interested in reading more about the scientific side of Empathy, check out the Empathy Lab’s website for resources.

Academics are starting to understand the relationship between reading and developing empathy. Just as the brain responds to words for smells, touches, etc as if you were smelling and touching something, your brain responds to stories as if was the real world. This means that the way we feel empathy for characters in stories, wires our brain to feel the same sensitivity for real people. This means that children can learn empathy from reading.

The Empathy Lab is trialling different approaches in schools, asking children to read books, look at how the characters felt and naming those feelings and then asking them to build this into actions. For example a group of children read a story about refugees, explored how it would feel to be a child refugee and then wrote letters to child refugees and politician. The children involved moved forward with literacy, family involvement and classroom relationships.

The Empathy Lab are looking to extend this work to museums, so watch this space.

Autism and Museums

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Freelancer Jo Gillam has been supporting Chelmsford Museum to improve access for autistic visitors. Here she gives us an introduction to autism and changes museums can make…

World Autism Awareness Week (27th March-2nd April 2017) is a good time to consider how to make your museum more autism-friendly….

30 years ago, my brother was labelled as unfriendly, difficult, and having a ‘mental handicap’. Today, he’s described as having autism plus learning disabilities. Autism is certainly a word that many people recognise now but how many know what it means? How can your museum be more welcoming to people with autism and their families?

What is autism and who can have it?

Autism is a lifelong condition thought to be caused by a combination of genetics, brain development and part of the natural variety among brains. i.e. ‘neurodiversity’. It affects 1 in a 100 people in the UK – women as well as men. There’s no evidence that it’s more prevalent than before or that any ethnic or socio-economic group has a greater propensity to it than others.

Autism isn’t a learning difficulty, a learning disability, or a mental health problem. Some people with autism do have mental health issues, not least because they can find life extremely stressful. About 50% of people with autism have a learning disability. Sometimes this is severe but all people with autism can learn and develop with the right support. About 10% of people with autism have high intelligence (the preferred term is ‘high functioning’). Until recently, this was diagnosed as Asperger syndrome which is a term still commonly used. For some, far from being a disorder or disability, autism offers valuable abilities and unique perceptions. Examples of exceptional autistic contributors to society almost certainly include Mozart, Einstein and Turing.

How does autism affect everyday life?

Autism affects how a person processes information, relates to others, makes sense of the world and how they experience it through their senses. To people who don’t have autism, these differences are invisible. What they notice is behaviour caused by the difficulties created by a mis-match between autistic differences and the surrounding world. How people react to this behaviour makes a big difference to the emotional well-being of people with autism, who often feel excluded from social activities.

How can your museum help people with autism?

Some of the most effective changes you can make are also the cheapest!

  • Promote patience and understanding when someone behaves unexpectedly in your museum.
  • Limit the number of questions you ask and allow more time than may seem comfortable for the person to reply.
  • Be direct. People with autism commonly take things literally so try not to cause confusion by using statements like “I’ll be back in a second”.
  • Don’t feel offended if someone doesn’t engage with your friendly small talk as this is something people with autism can find uncomfortable.

Parents often feel that they are judged to be inadequate when their autistic child has a meltdown. The real reason may be that the child is being overloaded with sensory input. For an insight into how this feels, take a look at this powerful little film made by the National Autistic Society (NAS): Too Much Information

Small changes to your museum can make a big difference and help other visitors at the same time.

It can seem daunting to make your museum more autism-friendly, when autism is so diverse. After all, how do you manage hypo (low) sensitivity and hyper (high) sensitivity to certain stimuli such as light and sound within the same venue? The answer is flexibility and choice.

  • Make your light and volume settings adjustable. If this isn’t possible yet, provide visual and written information so that visitors can seek out or avoid particular areas.
  • Advertise times when your museum is most quiet or open it for special Early Bird/Night Owl sessions when you turn down/off some sensory experiences.
  • Ideally, offer a low sensory area where someone who feels overloaded can take a break.
  • Loan relaxing objects like stress balls and stimulating, sensory kits which can be carried around.

Most visitors or their carers will know what they find challenging and may bring their own aids such as ear defenders. At Chelmsford Museum, we offer free pairs just in case.

Changes made to help visitors with autism, often improve conditions for other people with access needs. Avoiding ‘busy’ floor or wall patterns, for example, also helps people who suffer from certain visual impairments, dementia, epilepsy or migraines.

Full and honest pre-visit information can be a key to unlocking future visits

Potential visitors with particular needs can come to expect poor access and so not consider coming. Consequently, providing clear, accessible pre-visit information (and advertising this) is crucial. For people with autism, who often find breaks from routine and unfamiliar situations intimidating, having floor plans, images and outlines of what they can expect at a museum, can make the difference between whether or not they visit.

Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum (London) are leading the way in autism accessibility. These and other examples are listed by blogger Tincture of Museum.

On a smaller scale, Chelmsford Museum is developing its own resources aimed at visitors with autism and their families. We’re working towards achieving the NAS’s Autism Friendly Award. I’m teaching the team how they can make the museum more autism-friendly and would be delighted to provide training elsewhere. We’re also holding an event for World Autism Awareness Day (1pm-4pm 2nd April 2017) aimed at everyone. It would be great to see you there!

For further information, try these organisations:

The National Autistic Society | – NAS

Autism in museums | Network Autism

Ambitious about Autism

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Jo Gillam, Freelance Heritage Professional

Mob 07754 130145   

Email: 1joprice@gmail.com

Twitter: @1accessforall

If you would like to learn more about how your museum can support people with autism, Jo will be talking about her work with Chelmsford at this event in June.