How Heritage Embraces Autism ~ Jack Welch

Department of Ability Comic Life

Coming from the perspective of a casual visitor to museums and having (as yet) not professional experience from working in the sector, I feel confident enough in saying that the activities which have come my way have given a rare insight that others my age would have not had themselves. Whether it has been producing an exhibition in a museum or gaining paid roles as a result of volunteering, not only accessing heritage from a young age is a valuable opening in its own right, but impacts those like myself who have lifelong conditions to manage. For the latter part, it can alter the perception someone can see the world.

Understanding Others

My own personal story seemed to reach a highlight at the recent Autism in Museums event, hosted by the charity Kids in Museums, where on behalf of Ambitious about Autism I presented on what I believe professionals could learn from those periods in which museums and other related organisations really did break from their shell. The three values I spoke of as followed:

  • Interactive
  • Inclusive
  • Innovative
DYR Group
DYR Group

While most have their own interpretations on what those words mean to them, I saw in practice how these three interlinked goals could make a difference in what is seen sometimes as an unfashionable environment. At Dorset County Museum (DCM) in 2012, a cohort of us of mixed abilities, in education, employment or, as in some cases, with profound disabilities, worked together to put on a full exhibition on a 70 year legacy of youth clubs in the county. The project, Dorset Young Remembers (DYR), was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and was a celebration of all time strands from past to future of how provision for young people could make a real difference.

While the contents of the exhibition were something to be proud of, the real success lied in how all volunteers were part of the group and would be able to utilise their interests in research, interviewing members of the community or in my case, acting as a press officer for our online blog and the media. The challenge of acting as a Master of Ceremonies may have prompted some organisations to query whether someone more…polished to have taken on my role when officially launching the exhibition, but DCM gave us full control and responsibility of how we wanted to achieve our vision. As unusual in its context it may be, for those on the spectrum like myself and others who felt powerless to have any role in our communities, the experience of making something happen and acquiring a few more skills for the wider world pays its dividends. The Museum alone has to be applauded for taking what in retrospect now was a gamble and throwing its doors open to an area of modern history not often appreciated enough.

Breaking the Mould

Group of three taking part in Geocaching
Group of three taking part in Geocaching

With most museums intent on bringing its visitors inside its doors, it has to be said many more people would take a keener interest if the history could be located in the wider outdoor world where local heritage can be seen in the flesh. Living in an area like Dorset, many of its towns, including our base in Dorchester, is fortunate in not having to look hard to find a backstory. As a true example of this, Geocaching was an effective medium, which already had an international following, of setting boxes in hidden locations to simply tell those stories! Simple enough in its premise, but as a cost effective and accessible project for young people of all abilities to develop and take part in, it does in effect bring history to life when you might be standing in the heart of something significant. In my presentation, I recommended museums make more of a conscious effort to go beyond the typical boards attached to exhibits which might tell stories. With

copious sentences and sometimes minimally sized font, for those who are autistic and beyond, there is nothing to be gained from this. As illustrated by DYR’s successor project, Walking in their Shoes, with the help of Young Roots funding, produced its own unique spin of telling interesting narratives.

Walking In There Shoes (WITS) in Action
Walking In There Shoes (WITS) in Action
Comic Life - Comic Strip
Comic Life – Comic Strip

Previously used for exhibition boards at DCM, the Comic Life, software and others like it have the potential to be game changers in how history is perceived by a younger audience. Indeed, with the close support by The Tank Museum and Keep Military Museum, they helped to embrace our new approach by accessing their archives, even with the chance to see an exhibit in progress, to bring the history of World War I 100 years on to 2014. For Anglo Saxon research, this became even more pivotal when there is such little recorded factual information. A little imagination can go a long way, but without the collaboration of those who supported us in the heritage field, it would have failed miserably. For volunteers who had disabilities and who may have felt excluded previously, to feel valued with supported tasks they could make a contribution. Key to that is having willing adult volunteers who can enable younger ones. That in itself should be an incentive to museums to welcome new audiences.

Finding the Answers

There is no easy solution to prescribe to all venues. Museums and other places come in all different shapes and sizes and where funding these days becomes increasingly scarcer. A recurring point from the event this month shows just how basic training in autism awareness could go a long way to make a difference, but there are at last precedents being made and embracing autism in a more holistic method than previously done. The RAF and V&A Museums are trailblazing in this respect.

My booklet, ‘Generation History’ which was produced with the help of the charity Fixers advises how to make local heritage more inclusive and inviting to all. Though some things need investment to make it happen, I find it is an alternative approach which can help to break boundaries. Autism is not the problem to be solved here – it is the way in which we accommodate others that can tell of innovation.

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