By | January 29, 2021

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.