Researchers from across England partner with leading heritage organizations to reimagine our experiences of museums.
Led by Professor Hannah Thompson (Royal Holloway, University of London), this £1M project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council wants to transform access and inclusion within the museum sector by putting disability at the centre of museum practice and acknowledging the diversity and difference of all visitors. The team, that also includes Social Design specialist Anne Chick (University of Lincoln); Psychologist Alison Eardley (University of Westminster); and Museum Studies expert Ross Parry (University of Leicester) will work with disabled and non-disabled visitors, staff, and sector organizations to prototype and test a range of new ways of accessing museum collections and cataloguing objects. The 27-month long project (April 2023-July 2025) will focus on two key areas: how museums manage the objects in their collections and how the stories behind these objects are communicated to the public. At workshops and events across the UK, The Sensational Museum will develop a sense-based approach to collection and communication. This approach assumes that no specific sense is necessary or sufficient to work with or experience museum collections.
Thompson explains, “many people want or need to access and process information in ways that are not only – or not entirely – visual. But museums are very sight-dependent places. Let’s imagine a museum experience that plays to whichever senses work best for you. The project aims to give all visitors inclusive, engaging, enjoyable and memorable experiences.”
Visit The Sensational Museum to learn more about the project and to sign up for news and events updates.
The Sensational Museum is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
PI: Hannah Thompson (R)
Co-Is: Anne Chick (University of Lincoln); Alison Eardley (University of Westminster); Ross Parry (University of Leicester)
Sector Lead: Esther Fox (Curating for Change)
Esther Fox, Head of the Accentuate programme, lead for Curating for Change says: “We are delighted to partner with the Sensational Museum on this exciting initiative to really examine what museums mean for audiences and staff. Our work with Curating for Change puts disabled people at the heart of leading change within museums and we are excited to support the Sensational Museum in building on this approach.”
Matthew Cock, Chief Executive, VocalEyes says: “We’re thrilled to be involved in The Sensational Museum, which promises to be a ground-breaking project for the museum and heritage sector, turning traditional practice on its head and placing the experiences of disabled people at the heart of the process. VocalEyes’ role will be as Sector Impact Lead, helping to disseminate the project’s research findings to people working within museums and heritage sector organisations, raising awareness of the findings, resources and toolkits, and influencing and bringing about change to practice.”
Prof Ken Badcock, Senior Vice Principal (Academic Strategy and Research) Royal Holloway University of London says: “The Sensational Museum is an exciting project that builds on academic strengths across Humanities and Social Sciences, draws on Royal Holloway’s traditional affinity with the cultural sector, and works with a range of project partners. The target to create examples of what an enriched and inclusive museum experience could be is exactly the sort of impact that the University is looking to generate.”
Prof Ross Parry, Director, Institute for Digital Culture, University of Leicester says: “The Sensational Museum project will do something we have never tried before – following a museum object through its journey. Right from being collected and entering the museum for the first time, through its moment of documentation, up to when it is displayed and experienced in exhibitions and public activities. As we follow that object, we will be able to trace and evidence what gets imposed by our systems and practices – the moments when sensory assumptions are made in describing and recording the object, and in the way museum staff are assumed to interact with it. We have the opportunity, in other words, to re-imagine a new accessible form of collections management – both for people visiting and working in museums.”
Dr Alison Eardley, Department of Psychology, University of Westminster says: “Taking a co-creation approach, working with disabled audiences and practitioners, our exploration, piloting, and testing phases will be underpinned by empirically driven quantitative and qualitative research, to ensure generalisable outcomes that we hope will form the bedrock of a process of change across the sector, enhancing the museum experience for all visitors.”
Professor Anne Chick, Professor of Social Design, University of Lincoln says “The University of Lincoln is delighted to be involved in this innovative, interdisciplinary, co-creation project which has museum audiences at the centre of the research. The Sensational Museums’ outcomes will encourage and support museums to provide a positive and inclusive experience to disabled audiences and practitioners alike.”
Mike Ellis, Founder, The Museum Platform says: “At the heart of The Museum Platform is an aim to improve usability and access – not just for the public but also for time-pressed museum staff who need to maintain this content. We’re therefore delighted to be involved in The Sensational Museum, and are excited about getting deeply involved in the project with you and with all project partners over the coming months.”
Kevin Gosling, CEO, Collections Trust says: “While we welcome all aspects of the project, we are especially excited that it will develop an inclusive, open-access documentation interface linked to the Museum Data Service. Not before time, this will make it easier for a wider range of users to work with the information at the heart of museum practice.”
Eric Langham, Founder, Barker Langham says: “We are delighted to be part of the Sensational Museum project, and are eager to explore the prospect of redefining ‘accessibility’ not as an add-on but as an integral part of everyone’s experience. By identifying more equitable ways for all visitors to engage with museum content in a trans-sensory way, together we can begin to reimagine the museum through a new sensory logic.”
Quonya Huff, President, Scottish Museums Federation says: “We’re excited to be part of this pioneering project and even more so that it will bring tangible training to the Scottish museum and galleries sector.”
Georgia Monk, Senior Project Manager, Exhibitions, Wellcome Collection says: “Wellcome Collection has been in the process of developing its approach to inclusive and accessible exhibition making for several years and this is the perfect moment for us to engage with the Sensational Museum project and learn collaboratively with this extraordinary group of peers and partners.”
Notes for Editors
Arts and Humanities Research Council
University of Lincoln
Situated in the heart of a beautiful and historic city, the University of Lincoln has established an international reputation for the quality of its teaching and research. We aim to give students the skills and experience needed to discover and drive forward solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing our world today. We are placed among the top 30 universities in the UK for student satisfaction in the Guardian University Guide 2023. We are listed in the world’s top 130 in the Times Higher Education’s (THE) Young University Rankings 2022, hold a maximum five-star score overall in the QS Stars ratings system of global universities, and feature in the QS World University Rankings 2023 of the world’s top 1,000 universities.
University of Leicester
The University of Leicester is led by discovery and innovation – an international centre for excellence renowned for research, teaching and broadening access to higher education. It is among the Top 30 universities in the UK according to analysis by the Times Higher Education (THE) in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF), with 89% of research assessed as ‘world-leading or ‘internationally excellent’, with wide-ranging impacts on society, health, culture, and the environment. The University is home to more than 20,000 students and approximately 4,000 staff.
Institute for Digital Culture, University of Leicester
The Institute for Digital Culture works with the culture sector as it adapts in a digital world. The institute works empathetically with cultural organisations, professional bodies, and communities of practice, to drive research around digital culture that is purposeful and useful for the sector, nationally and internationally.
Royal Holloway, University of London
Royal Holloway, University of London, is ranked in the top 30 universities in the UK. Through world class research that expands minds and changes lives, the dedication of our teachers and the feel of the Royal Holloway experience, ours is a community that inspires individuals to succeed academically, socially and personally. The university was founded by two social reformers who pioneered the ideal of education and knowledge for all who could benefit. Their ambition lives on today. As one of the UK’s leading research-intensive universities we are home to some of the world’s foremost authorities in the sciences, arts, business, economics and law. We are strengthened by diversity, and welcome students and academics who travel from all over the world to study and work here, ensuring an international and multi-cultural perspective within a close knit and historic campus.
University of Westminster
The University of Westminster offers a vibrant learning environment attracting more than 20,000 students from over 155 nations and we continue to invest in our future with new developments, research projects and new ideas. The University ranked 8th in the UK and 52nd in the world for ‘International Outlook’, according to the Times Higher World University Ranking 2022. The University has also been recognised as one of the top 15% out of over 1,400 universities globally for its work on contributing to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). We also rank 2nd for social mobility among English universities, according to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and educational charity the Sutton Trust.
Established as London’s first polytechnic in 1838, we have, from our earliest days, opened our doors to provide educational opportunities to people regardless of their background and supported them on their journey to develop their skills, knowledge and expertise.
We offer highly attractive practice-based courses which are independently rated as excellent, many with international recognition. Our distinguished 184-year history has meant we lead the way in many areas of research, particularly Politics, Media, Art and Design, Architecture and Biomedical Sciences, and our position in the city of London allows us to continue to build on our close connections with leading figures and organisations in these areas as well as in the worlds of business, information technology, politics and law. Our commitment to educating graduates for the needs of professional life attracts high quality students from within the UK and around the globe. Global engagement, employability and sustainability are key elements in the University of Westminster’s vision for the future and we strive to ensure the very highest standards are met and maintained.
AVM Curiosities® has been exploring the relationship between art and the senses through a series of events and interventions since 2011. Founded by award-winning artist and food historian Tasha Marks, AVM Curiosities advocates for the sensory museum, championing the use of food and fragrance as artistic mediums. Projects range from olfactory curation and scented installations to interactive lectures and limited-edition confectionery.
Barker Langham is one of the world’s leading cultural consultancies, creating pioneering and sustainable projects around the globe. Across all our work, we look at questions from every angle and challenge assumptions to create unexpected, imaginative and thought-provoking outcomes.
Collections Trust is a small, but influential charity whose mission is to help museums work with the information that connects collections and audiences. With Art UK and the University of Leicester it is building a Museum Data Service that will pool and share object records from UK collections as the raw material for countless end uses.
Curating for Change
Curating for Change is a 3-year National Lottery Heritage funded project at Screen South. It wants to create strong career pathways for d/Deaf, disabled and neurodiverse curators in museums.
Group for Education in Museums (GEM)
GEM is a membership-based sector support organisation for everyone interested in learning through museums, heritage and cultural settings. Our mission is to support and empower our community of colleagues to connect and develop their knowledge and skills to deliver learning. Our services to deliver our mission include professional membership; training and professional development opportunities; 1-1 support; annual conference and events; dedicated representatives across all four Nations of the UK; publications and digital resources, support for sector recruitment; conversations and advocacy about practice and the development of learning.
The Museums Association is a membership organisation representing and supporting museums and people who work with them throughout the UK. Our network includes 10,000 individual members working in all types of roles, from directors to trainees and we represent 1,500 institutional members ranging from small volunteer-run local museums to large national institutions. Founded in 1889, the MA was the world’s first professional body for museums. We lead thinking in UK museums with initiatives such as Empowering Collections and Museums Change Lives and we provide £1.4m per year of funding for museum projects via our Esmée Fairbairn Collections fund and other grants.
The Museum Platform
The Museum Platform aims to democratise how museums can make their collections – and stories about those collections – available online as cheaply, as efficiently and as easily as possible.
Scottish Museums Federation
The Scottish Museums Federation is a membership body for anyone interested in the Scottish museums and galleries sector. We provide our members with networking opportunities, a dynamic forum to share information and discuss current issues in the sector, and encourage creativity, enjoyment and personal development in the sector.
VocalEyes believes that blind and visually impaired people should have the best possible opportunities to experience and enjoy art and heritage. Their mission is to increase those opportunities, make them as good as possible, and ensure that as many blind and visually impaired people as possible are aware of them, and that the arts and heritage sector know how to create them, and welcome blind people as a core audience.
Wellcome Collection is a free museum exploring health and human experience. Its mission is to challenge how we all think and feel about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art. It offers a changing programme of curated exhibitions, museum and library collections, public events, in addition to a café. Wellcome Collection publishes books on what it means to be human, and collaborates widely to reach broad and diverse audiences, locally and globally. Wellcome Collection actively develops and preserves collections for current and future audiences and, where possible, offers new narratives about health and the human condition. Wellcome Collection works to engage underrepresented audiences, including D/deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, and racially minoritised communities.