Sensory Backpacks at the V&A with Abigail Hirsch ~ Claire Madge, V&A

Curious Ceramics bag
Curious Ceramics bag

Launched in August 2015, the Curious Ceramics backpack is the V&A’s first backpack aimed at children with visual impairments. The V&A offer a number of backpacks for families, but for this special sensory version they worked in close collaboration with Sense, the national deafblind charity, and Abigail Hirsch an artist and an educator with experience and expertise in multisensory art engagement.

I first met Abigail at the Royal Academy – Why and How Conference back in 2015, her interactive gallery session on Rubens was a standout memory of the day. In February 2016 she invited me to visit the V&A with her to talk through the backpack, it was her first visit to see the final version actually in use in the gallery and we spent over an hour having fun with it.

Abigail told me the first challenge was finding an object to begin the journey with. The V&A had chosen the Ceramics Gallery for the backpack and it was important to tell the story of the gallery, not just of an individual object displayed in it. The Ceramics Gallery worked well as it was fairly quiet space that was not too crowded so that families felt comfortable and had room to work with the backpack.

Ceramics Gallery - lots to touch
Ceramics Gallery – lots to touch

The Ceramics Gallery was chosen and although it already had a lot to get hands on with and places to sit, it also proved a challenge as a lot of the displays were behind glass. Many objects are also not clearly displayed for someone with a visual impairment and it could be hard to distinguish between different objects in the cases. Abigail decided to tell the story of the journey of porcelain from China to the Netherlands, finally focusing on a large Dutch flower pyramid. She wanted to use objects, textures, sounds and smells to tell the story and include movement around the gallery.

Crowded display
Crowded display

It can be hard to pick out individual shapes on display if a visitor has visual impairment.

We picked up the bright yellow backpack from the education desk, inside were a collection of numbered bags containing a variety of items and a guide to explain how to use the bag. The guide takes the form of a story that provides active instructions to get families moving around the two ceramics galleries and questions are open-ended with no right or wrong answers.

Bag with guide
Bag with guide

It was important that the guide used contrast colours to make it easier for visually impaired visitors to use, and Abigail mentioned the problems of using laminated sheets where reflections on the shiny surface can cause difficulties. It was a requirement for all the bags to have exactly the same inside, it was also important to be able to easily source replacement items if anything became worn or damaged.

Block pyramid
Block pyramid

Items were road tested for durability, which led to for example a change in the selection of musical rainstick. Health and safety was a key issue too, the bags were aimed at families, with an awareness that there maybe younger ones in the group. The smallest cube from the box pyramid was removed as they felt it was too small and could easily be swallowed. Abigail also initially wanted an ocarina (a small musical instrument) included but the implications of spreading germs and the impractical requirement to clean after every use meant they were left out.

Flower pyramid
Flower pyramid

I thoroughly enjoyed working through the bags and the story they told in the gallery space. It was refreshing to have activities that did not require a pencil and paper and I thought the magnetic drawing board in particular a great idea. I felt the guide was a really useful tool, giving visitors the confidence to talk about objects and enjoy the galleries, it became a facilitator rather than a set of instructions.

Magnetic drawing board
Magnetic drawing board

There was a lot to touch, feel, smell and listen to, my favourite items were the clogs which provoked a surprising ‘ahh’ when they came out of the bag as they were very unexpected. The noise of wood and the encouragement they give children to make noise in the gallery are a welcome challenge to the stereotype of quiet traditional museums.

Clogs
Clogs

Points to consider when designing sensory backpacks –

  1. Budget – what is your budget? Can you apply to an external funder? The V&A backpacks were supported by Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson.
  2. Backpacks work better if they are aimed at the whole family, not just children. What activities draw adults in too
  3. Backpacks need to tell a story, not just contain objects.
  4. How can the backpack facilitate movement around the gallery or museum? Are there also places to sit and feel comfortable, to have time to go through the backpack.
  5. Make sure you advertise and promote the backpacks on the website and in the gallery. Do front of house staff know about them and can suggest them to a visiting family?
  6. Where are the bags kept? The only downside at the V&A is the bags were kept on the education desk on the 3rd floor, you had to find your way there and then go on to the 6th floor to find the Ceramics Gallery. Do families need to know about the backpacks before they come?
  7. Do visitors need to leave a deposit or just a form of ID? Are there forms to fill out? Will this put families off taking out a bag?
  8. Think about the health and safety aspects, are objects robust and can be used without staff supervision? Are their musical instruments that are blown? Can they be cleaned after each use?
  9. Where do you want families to use the backpack? Is there a particular gallery or space that would work well with a visually impaired audience?
  10. Feedback and evaluation is crucial, it can be hard to get families to fill out evaluation forms under their own steam. Do staff need to prompt feedback when a backpack is returned? Can in-gallery staff give verbal feedback from observations on how the backpack is used?

 

Claire Madge
Victoria and Albert Museum

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