Fantastic for Families Award 2022 Case Study
Bringing the gallery experience to life: sensory tours from MK Gallery
How can we open up the classical art gallery experience to be more inclusive for wider audiences with diverse accessibility requirements? Rosie May and Sophie Bennett from MK Gallery in Milton Keynes tell us about their sensory gallery tours, devised and delivered in partnership with Associate Artist Julia Collar, of Collar & Cuffs Co., which won Best Family Arts Activity Award in the Fantastic for Families Awards 2022.
What are our sensory tours all about?
MK Gallery’s Sensory Tours create accessible and enriching opportunities for early years and SEND child groups to interact with and experience our exhibitions programme. It forms part of MK Gallery’s wider Inclusive Practice in the Arts programme.
Our Sensory Tour programme is currently focused on two key areas; Toddle Tours for children aged 0-5 years old, and SEND tours for children aged 5+ with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). They form part of a gallery-wide commitment to making its spaces and exhibitions accessible to all, and in offering innovative high quality creative experiences for those with complex support needs.
Sensory tours are about bringing the content of artworks to life, in a language that is relatable for those taking part. A picture hanging on the wall can spring to action with music playing from the era, having a soft fabric to wrap around you, or a chilly ice bag to hold. Some personal highlights over the past year have included: trying on boxing gloves and red silky shorts whilst listening to the Eye of the Tiger song during our Ingrid Pollard exhibition; sitting on grass like fabric with falling white paper flowers over our heads during the Vivian Maier exhibition; and most recently experiencing the soundtracks of old computer games, whilst passing through the different levels of Larry Achiampong’s current Wayfinder exhibition. One young person said:
“It was amazing because it didn’t feel like I was in a room, it felt like I was in a computer game. It was really really good!”
Our Sensory Tours are developed with Associate Artist Julia Collar, of Collar & Cuffs Co., who specialises in delivering accessible sensory theatre, trails, and tours. In response to the nomination, Julia commented:
“Sensory tours push the boundaries of stereotypical ‘gallery’ behaviour, and there is joy in being able to use the space to play, dance, make noise, lie on the floor, and do so without self-consciousness or the risk of being shushed…. a little bit of MK Gallery magic comes with me wherever I go because it all started and grew from here.”
In addition to our public sensory tours, we are also working with Julia Collar and a local training provider, MK Snap, to co-design and deliver tours with and for learning disabled young people and adults. This innovative partnership provides exciting real-life work experience skills for those involved and extends the reach of the tours to older audiences.
Some of the word’s families have used to describe our sensory tours include: engaging, immersive, connecting, inspiring, accessible, fun and memorable. More extensive feedback has included:
“We loved every minute. My wheelchair user was very quickly put at ease and left with a huge smile on her face, while her younger sibling was hooked from the word go (he doesn’t usually like art)”
In the past year we have increased the frequency of the tours in direct response to family demand, and we have made them longer in duration, for a richer more in-depth experience. The Toddle Tours in particular are always fully booked! We have also started combining the tours with our Family Fun Days, which not only allows families to have a fuller day with us, but also offers children with complex needs an important transitional activity.
Parents and carers have also commented that they would perhaps like different tours to focus on different parts of the exhibitions, so they can experience a wider breadth of the work on show.
This type of sensory based work, where close proximity touch and the sharing of objects is integral to the experience, was just not possible during the pandemic, and it has taken a long time to build the attendance numbers up again, particularly with our SEND child groups where medical vulnerability is higher.
Most recently we have worked with artist Julia to offer a bespoke tour opportunity for national charity VICTA, who work with children who are blind or partially sighted and their families. This is a new area of work for us and a potential partnership that we would love to pursue.
“You brought the joy of the exhibition out, it was just magical.”
– Attendee feedback
What this award means to us…
We are so excited to have won this award for the work of our Inclusive Practice in the Arts programme and to have our Sensory Tour programme celebrated! We think the offer is quite unique to an art gallery, offering a stepping-stone for many families into gallery spaces, which they may not ordinarily think are for them. We know that art galleries can feel intimidating, especially for those with young children or children who have complex needs, so to know that we are offering an activity which breaks down those barriers and welcomes those families in with open arms, and to be recognised for it, is really special.
We are also very proud as an organisation to have supported an artist, Julia Collar, to develop and grow this strand of her inclusive practice.
Moving forward we would like to be able to extend our sensory tour programme to include more bespoke offers, reaching communities and audiences who may also benefit from sensory based interventions, including older people and those with early onset dementia. Given the high demand of our Toddle Tours in particular, it would also be great to offer these more frequently.
More widely we feel they are a fantastic example of best practice in galleries and we would love to share that knowledge and experience with other cultural spaces so that families across the country can access similar events. One parent recently commented:
“They are proof that art can build bridges not walls, and elitism doesn’t have to be the norm”.
19 January 2022
This case study was contributed by the Inclusion Team at MK Gallery, Rosie May (Inclusion Coordinator) and Sophie Bennett (Producer of Inclusion).
To find out more about the MK Gallery Sensory Tours programme, get in touch with Rosie on email@example.com or Sophie on firstname.lastname@example.org. For upcoming Sensory Tour dates please see: https://mkgallery.org/whats-on/?event-descriptor=accessible-events
MK Gallery’s Public Programmes team deliver a whole variety of regular activities and exciting one off events for children, young people, and families, together with our cohort of friendly Associate Artists. To find out more about upcoming family arts opportunities, please contact email@example.com or head to our website https://mkgallery.org/whats-on/