All About Access

Christine McLean writes about our most recent SMF Pop-Up; All About Access. 

We welcomed 15 people to our All About Access session at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.  These sessions are designed to be informal, knowledge exchange events with everyone seated round the table – no powerpoints or fancy presentations here!


Our three speakers are all highly skilled and experienced in delivering a range of engagement activities.

Diana Morton is both Curatorial and Engagement Manager with City of Edinburgh Museum Services and Open Museum Curator with Glasgow Life Museums.  Diana spoke about access initiatives in both workplaces, starting with creative ways to carry out access audits with little or no budget, for example using an online tool available on VisitScotland website to create your own audit.  Diana also worked with a University of St Andrews Museums Studies student to undertake an access audit resulting in a report with low-cost recommendations.

At  Glasgow Life, Diana is developing an outreach project with older people and specifically those living with dementia, funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery as part of National Museums Scotland’s Ancient Egypt and East Asia National Programme.  This will include setting up a dementia café.  Diana has also been developing the use of iBooks in Day Centres and Care Homes and hopes to get these online so they can be downloaded.  Users and staff find the iBooks easier to keep clean and maintain than traditional handling kits.

Postcards from Glasgow Museums holidays reminiscence kit
Postcards from Glasgow Museums holidays reminiscence kit

It was good to know that our speakers had all previously been in touch with each other to learn, share experiences and steal ideas.  Diana had contacted Caroline Currie about her work with BSL-users and from her own research, Diana knew that BSL-users did not necessarily want ‘special’ tours or events only available once a month, but wanted access at all times.  Diana has been putting online BSL-interpreted films about the City Museums, piloted and filmed BSL-led tours at The People’s Story Museum. The films are posted on YouTube and generate QR codes online which, when scanned give access to the filmed tours. Diana was very clear that the guides are themselves Deaf or BSL-users, not interpreters and there are 20 BSL interpreted tours.

Caroline Currie is Learning and Access Curator with the Burrell Redevelopment project and has extensive experience of widening access for diverse audiences, with a particular focus on BSL-users.  For the Burrell project, the push to be fully accessible is coming from the top and Caroline stressed that is vitally important to effecting genuine change.  Their approach to access covers four areas: Physical, Sensory, Intellectual and Attitudinal

Everything is being rigorously tested and every decision about fixtures and fittings involves consultation with the Access Panel.

Caroline and a colleague set up two new guiding groups, one for Deaf adults and one for refugees with English as a second language.  The latter group represented eight different languages and delivered tours that demonstrated there was a demand for this service.  A number of these guides have continued to volunteer with Glasgow Life and will come back to the Burrell when it reopens in Spring 2021.  Up to 20 staff will be trained to BSL Level 1, funded from the capital project budget; when the funding comes to an end, Caroline will step in to support staff using BSL as she is trained to BSL Level 6.  Staff across the museum have received with activity plan a 3-hour Deaf Awareness training session.  Caroline explained how this had impacted upon one curator who chose to borrow a painting for a special exhibition, from the National Galleries of Scotland –  Boy and Rabbit (by Raeburn).  The child in the painting was deaf and the curator referenced this in the object label and is now working on a funding bid focusing on deaf audiences.

Over at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh, Community Engagement Manager Jane Miller has been building a partnership with the City of Edinburgh Council Support for Learning sensory team.  The team work with visually impaired, Deaf and BSL-using children  who are in mainstream education and agreed with NMS to develop workshops and a ‘club’ at the museum.  These are closed monthly sessions, with families invited to attend and not available to the public.  Jane explained that some of the children need extra support to engage with and use collections for learning around the Curriculum for Learning.

Jane presented our group with a challenge that she and colleagues have faced with this project.  Sessions were initially held in the Learning Space at NMS, bring groups and families together in a social environment here children would feel safe and could meet other children with similar experiences.  However, when museum staff suggested some sessions might take place out in the galleries, there was some resistance from support workers.  Feedback from families including using an anonymous Survey Monkey, indicated that they would be keen to be in the galleries.  For Jane and her team, it is also important that making this work more visible would make it more accepted as part of the museum learning and public programmes.  In some ways, Jane’s approach echoes Diana’s findings – that people want to part of the regular activities at the museum and not offered ‘special events’ just for them.

Credit – Neil Hanna Photography

One session that differs from this approach at NMS is the Early Doors for families with an autistic child, where the museum opens one hour early on a designated Saturday.  Jane’s team have been running these for several years and are aware of the importance of clear, communication in the form of pre-visit visual stories, information on the website and communication cards that can be used with staff and family members, to signal needs eg ‘toilet’. The challenges here are finding the relevant information on the NMS website and Jane would like to see access place at the very front of web searches and with more than just physical access.

NMS have three sensory backpacks with a range of content and activities suitable for use by autistic children.  The most popular is a simple kitchen timer that helps families to manage how long a child has a toy or stays in a space.  Again, families need to know from the NMS website that these resources are available – free – to collect from the Tower Entrance of the museum.  We had an interesting discussion around how to manage this service and how many backpacks or contents have gone missing (answer: only one and that turned up later in the café); Diana was interested in this also as she has been looking to expand the use of iPads.

Sensory Backpacks
Sensory Backpacks

Jane would like to develop resources for an older age range and acknowledged that currently NMS does not offer any programmes or resources specifically for autistic adults. Her team are also keen to identify a ‘Quiet’ or ‘Calm’ Space within the museum that could be used by a range of visitors who may find their visit overwhelming and are working on a Sensory Map to show which galleries are bright, noisy, calm or sensory.  Jane has some Peoples’ Postcode Lottery funding to develop this and has involved Visitor Services staff; working with families and others that the Map will be aimed at,  to help develop it and get their feedback.  The Map should be ready by March 2020 and might be both printed and available online.

Jane also spoke about Museum Socials for people living with dementia.  These are monthly and part of a partnership offer with the National Galleries of Scotland, National Library of Scotland, RZSS (Edinburgh Zoo) and St Cecilia’s Hall.

Our speakers and participants shared a range of ideas to improve access, some low or no cost, others happily funded from capital projects or special funding streams.  One clear message that emerged was around normalising our approach to running accessible programmes and making our venues more accessible. In this way, everyone benefits.



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