Guest Blog: What Indoor Cultural Institutions Can Learn from Outdoor Art

Let’s be honest. Lockdown has been a ghastly time, particularly for autistic individuals who manage better with a routine, consistency, social interaction with individuals with whom they are familiar and can trust, and plenty of time and space to be outside. In trying to create this very environment for my eight-year-old autistic son Lumen, I planned as many days as possible for us to view art outdoors. We are avid artgoers, my two sons and I, and with most cultural institutions closed, outdoor sculptures and events, art trails, and exhibitions on facades of buildings became our solace.

My love of art is its ability to make us contemplate. It is a possibility, a recourse, a companion with an ability to effect change. I have strived to make Lumen aware that art will not fail him. If humans misunderstand him, judge him for his difference, disappoint him, if nature isn’t working its magic trick and he is searching for relief or consolation, he will always have art. He can have the conversation he wants, on his terms. Without anyone inflicting their expectations, least of all cultural institutions themselves.

During our outdoor art adventures, I quickly learnt that so much of our positive experiences pertained to more freedoms being allowed when compared to viewing art indoors. Lumen was more relaxed, likely because I was more relaxed. Indoor cultural institutions can learn from this, particularly with regard to welcoming autistic visitors. Below are some options they may consider, and while some are already made available for ‘autistic visitors sessions’, but they should be made available all the time.

Create something touchable

Some of the most visited, most acclaimed exhibitions are immersive and participatory. Think Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern, Carsten Höller at Hayward Gallery, and most recently Ann Veronica Janssens at South London Gallery. While we visited three separate shows during lockdown at the Breath Is Invisible project in Notting Hill, Lumen was able to touch the works on the façade of the building on which they were displayed. Same with Morag Myerscough’s installation in Grosvenor Square.  We could walk through the structure and touch the bamboo. Indoor museums should consider creating a touchable work which is similar to some of the actual work and display it alongside. The work can be created with the least expensive materials – plaster, photocopies and colour copies, painted polystyrene, etc. – and can be a smaller prototype or model, possibly even produced in a workshop offered by the museum.

Provide ‘safe spaces’

In the outdoor areas we visited, alcoves in buildings, open spaces to run around, and quiet corners were aplenty. We visited Ai Weiwei’s public art project as part of CIRCA, in Piccadilly Circus one evening. While this area is busy with vehicles and pedestrians, we found an alcove to tuck ourselves into and see the work displayed on Europe’s largest billboard where we felt more comfortable and secure. When one indoor gallery allowed visitors, Lumen became overwhelmed with the relatively small space and amount of people, and we retreated to the garden also on site. Many cultural institutions have spaces within their respective premises that they can provide as ‘safe spaces’. They do not have to be sensory rooms, only spaces where other visitors are not allowed. Such spaces should be indicated on a map so individuals, parents, and carers know where they are ahead of time.

Educate all staff

Cultural inclusion needs to be understood institution-wide, from trustees, board members, and management to retail and restaurant staff, bag checkers and ticket collectors, and especially invigilators. Ideally, such understanding would come in the form of actually spending time with autistic individuals, whether at special schools, assisted living or care homes, or other community programmes. This would allow for the understanding and acceptance of common autistic behaviours, such as flapping, jumping, spinning, running, talking when everyone else is silent, wearing ear defenders, wearing no shoes, or experiencing sensory overload. Rather than unsettle the autistic individual or his/her parent or carer by making irrational demands, staff could serve to allow certain non-harmful and non-disruptive behaviours or offer to help should it be required.

Such education might also allow staff to make exceptions when autistic individuals are unable to follow set routes, which have become more common since lockdown. Or to queue separately for bag searches and exhibition entrances. I cannot tell you how many times we have missed an exhibition because Lumen could not cope with the wait required in such queues. On our outdoor art expeditions, there were zero queues.

The beautiful thing about advocacy is that it becomes a shared responsibility, and with education, advocates can grow exponentially. While we were finding works on the Mayfair Sculpture Trail, more than one passerby asked about Lumen’s bare feet (this happens frequently), and I always deem this an opportunity to talk to and try to educate strangers about autism and sensory processing disorder. One passerby saw Lumen with his ear defenders on and spinning and asked what he was listening to. I smiled and responded: ‘Himself’. I proceeded to inform her why he wore ear defenders and why he was spinning. She was very kind and asked a lot of additional questions. Imagine if Lumen was having a meltdown in a cultural institution, and rather than be comfortable with fellow visitors staring and scorning, an invigilator decided to inform fellow visitors that they are not being helpful and to allow him some space.

Provide social stories for every single exhibition

While Lumen does not follow social stories, prior to visiting any outdoor exhibitions, I showed him images available on websites of works we might see, along with images of other places or things he might recognise along the way or in close proximity, including parks and shops, taxis, buses, people walking on grass or on pavements, trees, dogs, etc. I showed him images of several works we would see in the Bold Tendencies show on the top floors of a multi-storey car park in Peckham. Cultural institutions often already have the layout of shows and images of works within marketing materials, including exhibition brochures. It would not be difficult for them to create a social story template and tailor it for each show, making sure to include toilets, safe spaces, and any outdoor accessible spaces on the map.

Allow more than a few hours once a month for autistic visitors

Most of the outdoor art we visited required no booking, and we could choose to go when Lumen was in the mood, and when I knew there would likely be less visitors. If we had trouble getting out the door (not uncommon with us), the usual added stress that we would miss our time slot was eliminated. I realise time slots are unavoidable with managing crowds and capacity, especially after lockdown, but it is not unfeasible to ask cultural institutions to offer more than one single relaxed morning per month for autistic visitors. They cannot imagine what this means to parents and carers of autistic children, providing an environment where fear of judgement from fellow visitors is removed and fear of invigilators and other staff thinking a child is misbehaving is removed. And the chances of a meltdown from sensory overload is essentially eliminated due to temporary sensory rooms being created, lights being dimmed, music turned off in gift shops and restaurants, and hand dryers in toilets turned off (this is an ongoing issue with us, and we learnt during our outdoor art visits that not a single disabled toilet we were able to use with our radar key – despite several being shut to the public during lockdown – had a hand dryer installed, preventing what is almost always an inevitable meltdown should a hand graze under it accidentally and turn it on).

Provide ear defenders at reception and exhibition entries

Lumen has his own ear defenders, and we never leave home without them. In fact, I bring replacement parts with us on longer outdoor adventures in the event there is loud construction work nearby – a main trigger for him - and he takes his off and throws them on the pavement or bites a chunk out of them. They served their purpose during our lockdown art jaunts, and I think they would prove effective if cultural institutions offered them. There are ‘disposable’ ear defenders for under £5 (not the type to be inserted into ears, which Lumen and several autistic children we know will not tolerate). And museums, galleries, cultural and historical centres, libraries, archives, and other institutions have a branding and loyalty opportunity should they decide to slap their logo on the ear defenders and encourage these same visitors to bring them with them next time they visit. My son and I would much more inclined to visit a museum that went this extra step and made us feel like we were a priority and welcome at any time.

Provide ‘mask-exempt’ stickers or badges

Lumen could not tolerate wearing a mask, as the majority of children at his school also could not, due to both a lack of understanding and sensory issues. Luckily, we were not required to wear one at any of the outdoor art venues. Depending upon the government’s rules of mask wearing in future, it would be helpful for cultural centres to take a page from Transport for London’s book and offer in the form of a sticker or badge a message to others that a person is exempt from wearing a mask. While some visitors may not choose this option, others may feel more comfortable communicating in the form of a sticker or badge that it is not that they do not want to follow rules, it is that they are exempt.

With the arts and culture sector contributing £2.8 billion a year to the Treasury via taxation to the UK economy, the sector, along with policy and decision makers need to make inclusion a top priority. Current inclusion policies are not working, and lockdown has only served to highlight this even more. Visiting outdoor art has given us tremendous insights, and indoor cultural institutions should be open to considering changes to reflect these insights. The day Lumen can walk into Tate Modern or the Royal Academy, with bare feet and ear defenders, and spin in front of a Gerhard Richter or flap in front of a Joshua Reynolds, while an invigilator tells a fellow visitor who is staring at us, ‘Oh, he’s a huge art fan who’s telling us he loves these works,’ is the day I’ll know we’re headed in the right direction.

Lisha Aquino Rooney

Lisha is an artist and autistic rights advocate, particularly within the arts realm. She is CEO of WhatDo, a clothing company celebrating autistic individuals and neurodiversity. Lisha is ambassador for Flute Theatre, a theatre company which performs the works of Shakespeare to audiences primarily composed of people who could not ordinarily access the performing arts, including autistic individuals and their families. Lisha is also a governor at Queensmill School, a school for autistic children rated Outstanding in all aspects by Ofsted.

Why a conference on inclusion now?

There is no more of an opportune moment to discuss cultural inclusion.

We know that during the pandemic there have been huge movements forward that have enabled meaningful access and inclusion. People who work in this space have continued to problem solve and make adaptations with some profound results. We want to amplify and share these so that they can help and inform other organisations.

We have seen the home becoming a place of access and learning, where families have become significant players within the education dynamic.  This shift means that new relationships have been formed and greater impact has been seen. We know that families are central to inclusion and this offers further opportunities that can be built on to promote equality of opportunity for disabled children and young people.

However, there are inequalities within society which have become greater and more entrenched. Cracks have now become chasms.  The digital divide is one such illustration of this which has been identified and attempts are being made to meet this need. The access to IT has become a signifier of division in society.  Not only access to devices, but also access to wifi which is a reoccurring theme that 9 months into the pandemic has yet to get the strategic attention from government that it so badly needs. The threshold for support means that great swathes of learners are missing out. This connectivity is not only vital to education and culture; it is also the connection to community and support.

We know that, as a result of isolation and lack of connectivity, there is mental health tsunami that will hit post pandemic. In the generations that preceded, who were brutalised by their experiences, we do know that mental health matters. We can support those affected and  healing can happen.

It has become more apparent that access to space and resources that allow meaningful engagement to take place in the home has a financial cost. We know that communities need access to shared spaces so that they can continue to have common experience. We need to affirm our commitment to each other and our commitment to culture. Culture engagement, as both producers and consumers, envelopes all of our lives and is a right for all to access.

This conference offers us the opportunity to come together so that we can have the conversations we need to innovate and lead change. For us to gain understanding of inclusion and how to develop and grow it through real, sustainable partnerships.

This conference is a space where we can galvanise a range of people, organisations and institutions with a shared set of values to discuss the issues, have dialogue and make that change.  For us to explore this space so that we have greater understanding and to think about how best to proceed. To engage in problem solving, and identify practical solutions, as well as continuing to build an inclusionist network. That is why we have invited those that work and influence in the space to share the issues they have identified, and some of the solutions that have already been used to tackle them, so we can all learn and move forward together.

Guest Blog: The highs and lows of Covid Culture

Aside from the challenges of home schooling three children, 2 on the autism spectrum, it has been a difficult time for the life of this museum access consultant. The simple fact that I have gone from being busier than I could manage with my Autism in Museums work to having one piece of consultancy over the whole year highlights the risk to access and inclusion work during the uncertainty of closures.

I have no doubts that access and inclusion work is on the slide because of Covid, at a time when society needs this approach more than ever. A report from the National Autistic Society stated that 9 in 10 autistic people worried about their mental health during lockdown and 85% said their anxiety levels got worse.

During the last year I have interviewed 20 leading museum and funding professionals to capture their view on the challenges and opportunities of our times. Laura Wright, CEO of the Postal Museum, highlighted that this was a time when approaches were split, some might build accessibility into re-opening up to visitors at the very start whereas others would put inclusion on the back burner preferring to focus on opening up and then worrying about how inclusive their approach was. Some, like Lincoln Castle,  launched a ‘shielding hour’ to encourage those reluctant to leave their homes, however for many it is just not on their agenda.

For many autistic people lockdown provides a routine and familiarity that is reassuring. For us as a family the eventual opening up of schools and society will be fraught with change and fear. The unpredictability of new routines, testing regimes and the need to return to home schooling when Covid cases are detected in school makes for an incredibly difficult time.

Whilst schools seem more prepared for this second national Lockdown, the result, particularly in our house, seems to be more screen time which is noticeably lacking in creativity. Drama, music and art opportunities are limited in favour of the core subjects of maths and English.

There are some positives to be taken away from this time if you look hard enough for them. For museums the new rules and explanations needed for visitors have led more organisations to think about how they reach visitors. Visual stories and clear guidance can support autistic visitors but they also help to allay anxiety for all visitors. The Cartoon Museum have worked on their own visual story for children and Hull Museums have also incorporated Covid changes into their offering.

My other role is with the National Lottery Heritage Fund and I know from our conversations that inclusion sits at the very heart of our grant giving. Reaching a wider range of people with projects is absolutely key and there is scope for projects to connect fractured communities at this time.

From talking to a number of funders during my ‘Lockdown Interviews’ it is clear they have learnt a lot from this period - becoming more responsive, flexible and cutting down on paperwork. There is a spirit of collaboration that aims to cut through the fog of grant giving to make the process more streamlined and accessible to groups who perhaps haven’t received funding before. There are some fantastic examples of this collaborative work on the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance’s list of Covid projects.

Museum outreach has also taken gone in new directions, interviewing local authority museums highlighted the number of staff who had been redeployed to frontline roles supporting shielding and vulnerable members of society. Many museum staff have been working with groups who never set foot inside their local museum, an opportunity to understand the communities they support in new ways.

I have no doubt the months ahead will continue to be difficult but art and culture has an absolutely pivotal role in our recovery as long as it is resourced and supported.

Claire Madge

Clare is a museum consultant, blogger and autism parent. Since 2012 she has been advocating for improved autism access to museums and cultural venues, founding Autism in Museums to support organisations with training and raising awareness of how to welcome autistic visitors. Claire also sits on the London and South Committee of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and spent four years on the Access Advisory Group at the Horniman Museum.

Cultural Inclusion in the age of COVID

26th February 2021 - Virtual conference - Save the date

The Cultural Inclusion Manifesto is a campaign to ensure that disabled people have access to all aspects of culture and heritage. As creators and consumers; as employees and volunteers; as the subjects and the critics.

COVID has presented both threats and opportunities for cultural inclusion.  The campaign’s second conference explores this with presentations on what we know both of the additional access challenges created by COVID and real life examples of some of the positive developments that we can take forward into the future.

One of the particular areas for exploration is the school/home/community relationship:

  • Has COVID provided opportunities for new partnerships with home to develop cultural capital and experiences or has it widened the gap?
  • Have new community partnerships formed with all schools or are some super-served while others go without?
  • Is digital levelling the playing field or just creating second class experiences for those who cannot access the physical?

Speakers announced in January.

To hear more sign up to the Cultural Inclusion Newsletter here

Arts Council England Strategy 2020-2030

Arts Council England has released its strategy ‘Let’s Create’ for the next 10 years and puts inclusion high on the agenda. “The support that we give to creative practitioners, particularly D/deaf and disabled people, those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, women, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, either at the beginning of their careers or at moments when they are seeking to test different paths, can provide essential time, space, and affirmation precisely when those things are needed most. For individuals, the significance of such support may not become clear until years later, but collectively, its impact across the cultural sphere is profound. “See more…

Why the Cultural Inclusion Manifesto?

See Paul Morrow’s slides and notes from his presentation to the New Voices Conference, with HM Chief Inspector of Education in the audience. The presentation outlines the need for The Cultural Inclusion Manifesto, how it came about, what has been achieved so far and the next steps for Cultural Inclusion. Click here

Cultural Inclusion Progress Update

It has been very busy here at the Cultural Inclusion Manifesto and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Anita, Rachael and Matt in pushing the conversation further and ensuring that inclusion is very much part of the agenda. We are all working on the manifesto voluntarily, but we are very much making head way.

I still teach four days at Westminster Special Schools, and I am very pleased to announce that we have secured a further three years of funding from the John Lyon’s charity to support the West London Inclusive Arts Festival. The festival was pivotal in the formation of manifesto, and now has six special schools and five cultural partners as it moves into its fourth year. We have ambitious plans, with the view of a pan-London festival going forward…watch this space!​

We have been very active and have met a number of organisations interested in the Manifesto. Earlier in the year we met at Miranda Wayland, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at the BBC and had an interesting conversation as they place inclusion centrally within their strategy. ​

As a consequence of last year’s conference we have developed the Inclusive Access Plan and have promoted this with a number of our partners. We have promoted the Cultural Inclusion manifesto at the Musically Inclusive Forum lead by the Royal College of Music and have attended a similar forum comprising of the National Gallery, The Camden Arts Centre, The Museum of London a New Direction and The Royal Academy of Art. I have also presented and made the case for the Cultural Inclusion Manifesto at the New Voices Conference where Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector of Education was in the audience and avidly taking notes! ​ ​​

Going forward I will be presenting alongside the Tri-borough Music Hub at the Music Mark conference exploring cross sector relationships and the notion that everyone is an inclusionist. ​

I am also part of a panel at CPD event organised by A New Direction Advocate Tom Underwood discussing  SEND Pupil Voice in the Arts at Battersea Arts Centre on Wednesday the 13th November. ​

No access, no public funding?

Five years after first highlighting discriminatory attitudes in ArtsProfessional, the Government’s Disability Champion for Arts and Culture Andrew Miller reflects on progress towards inclusion. See more

The Inclusive Access Plan

Rationale

The Cultural Inclusion manifesto not only seeks to be a space where best inclusive practice can be shared across a number of fields, it also seeks to be a platform for activism for positive change with a focus on solutions that have real impact on the lives of people with disabilities. We will achieve this by supporting them in telling their stories and effecting change; by promoting inclusion structurally, attitudinally and on a policy level

Inclusion is part of the whole experience; an inclusive approach means the anticipation of barriers and the subsequent mitigation or removal of these.

If a venue has a rich inclusive offer but the physical access to these is problematic then whether it is real inclusion is to be challenged.

Transport – and particularly drop off - was a common theme identified at the inaugural Cultural Inclusion Manifesto conference, and here we aim to address that.

 

Proposal

Every cultural institution to create an Inclusive Action Plan that supports inclusive travel to and from setting. This should be considered by funders, planning departments and all others involved in supporting the institution’s business plans. Over time no funding should be awarded – nor planning permission given – to an arts or cultural setting that does not have an Inclusive Action Plan.

Where guidance and support with transport is not embedded into a cultural institution’s offer from the earliest point of contact this can at best frustrate and at worst end engagement.

As an example during the West London Inclusive Arts Festival of 2018 the Festival team had to pay a significant amount of money to the local council (Hammersmith and Fulham) to suspend parking bays close to the Lyric theatre in order for young disabled people to access the venue safely. In 2019 the team successfully lobbied the council and had five parking bays suspended for free for the duration of the festival.

This consistent feedback on travel and transport – from parents, young people with disabilities and schools (particularly special schools) poses a number of questions:

  1. Why should a young person with additional needs, their family or their school have to pay additional money to access a cultural space when their neuro-typical and able bodied peers do not?
  2. Why – after so many years funding settings on inclusion - is this not included within a strategic offer of all cultural institutions?

 

Beginning thinking on an Inclusive Access plan

We are at an early stage of consulting on what an Inclusive Action Plan should like and are drawing down examples of cultural settings that do this well.

From feedback from teachers, young people and families so far we have identified the follow key criteria.

  1. The document should be written in accessible English (reading age 8) and be accessible in a number of formats. It should be clearly sign-posted on the setting's website. Ideally it should summarised in video format with sub-titles.
  2. It should include guidance on public transport, walking routes, routes suitable for wheelchair users & those with limited mobility and for private cars. This should include indicative prices where possible.
  3. Where possible settings should try and negotiate discounts for transport and travel to their venues. This might include special deals with train companies or exemptions from car parking fees.
  4. Where transport and travel costs may be a barrier to access settings should consider subsidies to ensure those with disabilities are not paying more than non-disabled peers.
  5. Cultural organisations should have designated parking for minibuses/cars that are either on-site, or working in collaboration with the local council/local business, have spaces designated that have easy access to the venue, i.e. reasonable walking distance when pushing a wheelchair with only a minimum of road crossings.
  6. There should be a map that clearly highlights the closest tube/train/bus stops with a map of how you can then access the venue.
  7. Public facing staff should receive disability awareness training.

This is a work in progress but is already being considered by some venues and funders as a potential 'kitemark'.

Views on the potential of an Inclusive Action Plan are welcome. As are examples of both where transport has been a challenge and examples of those venues that have got it right.

In some ways this should be one of the simplest aspects of Cultural Inclusion. Practical access issues.  But – like physical venue design – it is an area that many years into ‘disabled access’ is still too often neglected.