Becki started by emphasizing that sensory interpretation is an intersectional approach to the whole visitor experience of a museum.
All people rely on sensory cues for wayfinding and orientation – not only visually, but through all of our senses. The loss of these cues are caused by society and systemic barriers, and by not using all of the sensory inputs available, museums are limiting who can access and enjoy our spaces. As an example, Becki shared that 1% of people in the UK are completely illiterate, with 16% of adults having the lowest level of literacy proficiency; by relying solely on text-based interpretation we are removing their ability to interact with the museum. Other factors such as lighting, colour, noise, and glare on surfaces can significantly limit who can happily experience the spaces around us; not only in exhibitions, but in intermediary spaces, museum cafes, and even our welcome desks.
Becki then shared that there is now a free guide to help museums make the change to sensory inclusive design! Design for the Mind PAS6463 is a free standard for sensory inclusive design. The Standard gives guidance on how to design built environments “to include the needs of those with sensory or neurological processing differences”. For museums, this may be used for exhibitions, redevelopments, or simple adjustments for visitor spaces and back offices (because let’s not forget that those with sensory or neurological processing differences are staff as well as visitors).
(As an aside, I have looked through PAS 6463. It seems long at first glance – 148 pages, to be exact – but it is an easy read (unsurprising for a document about improving access) with good line spacing and simple terms. The actively informative sections start at section 4, which outlines a brief for an inclusive design company, followed by different sections with particular themes, meaning you can pick and choose what is relevant to you – for Registrars these are most likely Sections 8 (Internal Layouts), and 10-14 (Acoustics; Light; Surfaces; Fixtures, fittings and furniture; and Quiet Spaces). Overall, the PAS is very informative and, as it is free, should be downloaded and shared widely.)
After introducing the PAS, Becki gave examples of how inclusive design can – and should – involve teams across the museum. Front of House staff know the issues visitors are facing in your spaces more than anyone else, so make sure they have opportunities to feed in to Diversity, Equality and Inclusion strategies; collections can adapt forms, and extend interpretation to the widest possible audience by incorporating sensory tools. There is a cross-departmental responsibility to improve inclusive practice, for both visitors and staff.
To move forward, Becki suggested that museums need to really understand how people do – and don’t – engage with museum buildings and work to improve the areas that are limiting. As a sector, we can use PAS 6463 to build institutional confidence, and develop an intersectional, cross-departmental approach to improving our inclusivity.
Sam Jenkins, Collections Manager, People’s History Museum