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What is the Sensational Museum

Hannah Thompson writes about the origins of The Sensational Museum

Museums can be very sight-dependent places. Visitors move around in silence looking at objects or artworks, often behind glass. This ‘look and learn’ approach works for some people. But others – like me – want to access and process information in ways that are not reliant on what we can or cannot see. My Dad is a (now retired) museum professional so as a child I spent many weekends and holidays in and around museums. I can still remember how embarrassed I was every time I set off the alarms by edging too close to the displays to try and read the labels. I was forever bumping my forehead against glass display cases and stumbling into poorly-lit exhibits. In the end frustration got the better of me and I gave up trying to see in museums. Instead, I would retreat to the café or get my Mum or sister to read everything out to me.

Things have changed a lot since the 1970s and 1980s. Now, as a partially-blind museum goer, I can enjoy some great audio and tactile experiences in museums across the UK. [Tate Modern:]  run wonderful after-hours audio-described tours of their high-profile temporary exhibitions (Picasso and Cezanne have been recent highlights for me) and at the Ulster Museum last week I really enjoyed being able to touch the Designated Day Flags produced as part of the 2021 Turner Prize-winning installation [The Druthaib’s Ball by the Array Collective:]. But these experiences tend to be the exception rather than the rule. They happen thanks to the wonderful work of individuals and small teas, but resource constraints or low prioritisation mean that they are relatively rare.

A few years ago, I came across some fascinating [research by Rachel Hutchinson and Alison Eardley (University of Westminster):]  that showed how audio descriptions designed for blind people give sighted people a more memorable and enjoyable museum experience. This made me wonder what would happen if we redesigned museums so that the additional services provided for disabled visitors were at the heart of how museums work for everyone. What if we collected all the wonderful examples of inventive access programming across the UK and used them to rethink the way museums speak to all our senses?

I organised a series of Zoom meetings with my contacts from across the museums sector (including Matthew Cock from VocalEyes and Esther Fox from Curating for Change) and we quickly realised that this way of thinking about exhibition design would also have huge implications for the way ‘behind-the-scenes’ museum and heritage professionals such as archivists, cataloguers, and curators work. So, we brought in Ross Parry (University of Leicester) to think about how museums might work in a more trans-sensory way and Anne Chick (University of Lincoln), to lead on social design and collaborative co-creation.

There is nothing worse than a group of academics telling people on the ground how to run their museums: to avoid this we reached out to a whole range of organisations across the museums sector whose expertise and experience we can’t do without. The result is an interdisciplinary and multi-partner project with lived experience at its core : we hope that we can use this collective wealth of knowledge and experience of disability to change how museums work for everyone.