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

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.


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

Tom’s Ship of Stories ~ Alison Hale, Peoplescape Theatre

Tom's Ship of stories

Peoplescape Theatre Logo

Arts Council England Logo





A multi-sensory storytelling project for special schools created by Peoplescape Theatre.

In partnership with National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark and Horniman Museums and Gardens.

Funded by the Arts Council

Peoplescape are a theatre education company working in London and Manchester. We work with all ages in schools, museums and community settings. Over the past 8 years we have been developing theatre projects in museums for children with special needs.

We aim to create theatre that is accessible to all, so we often limit our words, use music, sensory experiences. Our work is always interactive often with the children taking a role in the story.  In this project we were also working with a composer and digital mentor.

Following our recent successful projects for special needs audiences at the Museum of London and ‘Welcome to Cottonopolis’ at the People’s History Museum, John Rylands Library and Salford Museum, we were delighted to be collaborating with three wonderful museums in South London.

All of the museums were very keen to develop their offer to special needs groups.

We wanted to find a way to link the museums’ collections in a meaningful way and create a single story which would be performed in each museum for special school audiences.

Company Play day and Focus Group

The project began in February 2015 with a company play day at the Horniman Museum – exploring style, theme, techniques. This was followed by a focus group workshop bringing together Peoplescape, the museums and local special schools. We shared ways of working creatively with children with special needs, possible ideas for stories, and worked through drama to engage with objects, characters and themes inspired by the museums. We also talked to the teachers about universal themes that were pertinent for their children.

We came up with a simple story – It is the late 19th Century.  A 14-year-old apprentice says goodbye to his mum and boards a tea clipper for a voyage overseas.

Research and Development

We began a series of nine research and development workshops in three schools local to the museums. We worked with one class at each school. The groups were very different:

Year six high functioning children with ASD
Year one children with SLD and PMLD
Year four children with a variety of need: ASD, SLD and PMLD

Within these workshops we were able to try out ideas, themes and ways of working, including:

Storm Music created by the children

Call and response sea shanties

Multi-sensory objects and experiences
Multi-sensory objects and experiences

Multi-sensory objects and experiences e.g. wind created by sails, rope, tea, ice bags, UV fabric sea creatures

Different characters and moving in and out of role

Live video projecting of children whilst they were in role as sailors

Applied theatre techniques such as improvisation, thought tapping, forum theatre to explore the apprentice’s feelings about leaving home, the jobs he might do on the ship etc.

An interactive floor projection of the sea.

From the workshops we were able to find out what worked for all groups (e.g. the mum role and the emotion of leaving) and what didn’t (e.g. shadow puppets for children with visual impairments). Each group was also able to have a session in one of the museums. The children had ownership of the story and were able to contribute in their own way e.g. showing us their reactions to various digital and musical techniques, naming the main character ‘Tom’, choosing China as a destination for the ship, telling us their research about the harshness of conditions on board 19th century tea clippers.


All this work fed into our devising process where we shaped the ideas into an hour-long participatory performance.

Outreach Workshop

Before each performance we visit each school to deliver an outreach workshop to introduce ourselves and some of the props, songs and characters. We are also able to gauge the needs of the children and pitch the performance appropriately.

The performance – Toms Ship of Stories

“Prepare the Ship to set sail”

Prepare the Ship to set sail
National Maritime Museum

“Haul the ropes and hoist the sails!”

Haul the ropes and hoist the sails - Cutty Sark
Cutty Sark

“Are you ready for hard work? Scrub the decks!”

Are you ready for hard work? Scrub the decks! - Cutty Sark
Cutty Sark

“I don’t think I’d like to eat a jellyfish for my tea!”

I don’t think I’d like to eat a jellyfish for my tea!

‘pack the tea and load the crates’

pack the tea and load the crates - Cutty Sark
Cutty Sark

“I want the rain to stop, I want the wind to stop, I want to sleep”
“Tom is feeling sad…. I wonder if any of you can help?”

I want the rain to stop - Horniman Museum & Gardens
Horniman Museum & Gardens

Teachers’ responses:

“very well thought through, addressing the auditory, sensory and visual needs of the audience”

“the whole performance was fantastic, children were extremely engaged”

“Lovely to come to something that was pitched at just the right level”

We are currently working on the next phase of the project. We’re working with the museums to  develop their own sessions created specifically for special needs groups drawing on the techniques we’ve used in Tom’s Ship and the many things we’ve learned.

Alison Hale, Creative Director, Peoplescape Theatre


Definition of terms:
SLD Severe Learning Disabilities
ASD Autistic Spectrum Disorders
PMLD Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (physical, learning & sensory impairments)

Photos © National Maritime Museum

Free showcase performance of Tom’s Ship of Stories, followed by discussion, at the National Maritime Museum on the 10th March, 3-5pm. Open to all those working in museums/theatre/education. Places must be reserved, contact


Sensory Objects

What we wanted to do

To create a series of multisensory interactive art works that respond to museum collections, to generate alternative ideas for museum interpretation, developed through art and electronics-based workshops by people with learning disabilities in collaboration with an interdisciplinary research team.

How we worked together

The Sensory Objects project brings together artists, engineers, experts in multimedia advocacy, museum workers and people with learning disabilities as co-researchers in the design of interactive multisensory objects that replicate or respond to objects of cultural significance. Through a series of staged multisensory art and electronics workshops, people with learning disabilities work as co-researchers in exploring how the different senses can be utilised to augment existing museum/heritage artifacts or create entirely new ones. The project has worked with the Tower Project exploring collections in The Enlightenment Gallery at The British Museum where we created Sensory Labels, with Reading College students from the LLD/D exploring the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) where we created interactive farm animals, and with Mencap Liverpool Access to Heritage Forum at the National Trust’s Speke Hall where we made Sensory Story boxes. Each museum became the focus for developing unique sensory objects in response to our co-researchers perspectives of the collection.

The Sensory Objects Research Team


  • Mencap Liverpool Access to Heritage Forum: Paul Lorde, Angela Green, Stephen Hogg, Elle Rice and Tracy Cleaver, Derek Connelly, Chris Griffiths and Terry Beech, Patrick Cowley. Support workers: June Jenkins, Geraldine Regan.
  • Reading College students from the Learners with Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities (LLD/D) department: Sian Nicholas, Skye Cuthbert, Luke Brown, Rumena Begum, Rachel McGowan, Rachel Hallissey, Guillermo Hart.  Reading College Lecturer: Qian Chen.  Support workers: Li Hao, Matthew Ivey and Tasha Croshaw.  Reading Mencap Coffee Club, including Miranda Fox and Support Worker Ali Carroll.
  • The Tower Project, London: Sam Walker, Judith Appiah, Tim Elson, Adalana Ojo, Julie Ryan, Adjoa Weidemann, Ryan Burns, Michael Tapps, Katy Wollard, Justin Grimes, Ashley Mason, Kelly Woods. Support workers: Minos Papdimitriou, Ferhat Salman , Reshma Khan, Debbie Hudson.


  • Kate Allen (Art Department), Nic Hollinworth and Faustina Hwang (School of Systems Engineering), University of Reading
  • Andy Minnion (Director) and Gosia Kwiatkowska, Rix Research University of East London
  • Ticky Lowe, Consultant, Artist and Coordinator of Mencap Liverpool Access to Heritage Forum and Director of Making Sense CIC

Heritage and Museum Partners

  • Speke Hall, National Trust, Liverpool
  • Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading
  • The British Museum, London

How we shared our work

We have an accessible webpage, a how-its-done technical page, a wiki created by our co-researchers  and a twitter account @SensoryObjects

We have held three showcase events with an accompanying seminar at each museum. During 2014 our co-researchers and research team have presented workshops and papers at national and international conferences and events including Engage 2014 Bristol and the Diversity in Heritage Meeting London, Museums and Heritage Show Olympia and the Inclusive Museum Conference, Los Angeles USA

How the project was funded

Funded from 2012-2015 by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC, project reference AH/J004987/1).

Outcomes and evaluation

The project has been very successful in developing co-research with people with learning disabilities and workshop activities.  Our participants have been highly-engaged in the activities, and the feedback has been very positive.

The project has developed workshop tools to make working with electronics and interactive technologies more accessible, which we have called “littleBits go LARGE” (see

We have developed custom devices that can be used to enhance a museum visit with multisensory experiences, i.e. an easy to use “sound box” that can be carried around a visit and that plays sounds at an appropriate part of the collection (see

The project has produced a series of webpages  created by co-researchers with learning disabilities, documenting their experiences.

We presented our Sensory Labels at The British Museum on 11th Feb 2015 this was so successful we were invited back as an event for the half term holidays with our co-researchers showing their Sensory Labels to hundreds of adults and children in the Enlightenment Gallery.

Sensory Objects project won the International Design for All Foundation Award Trophy 2014 for ‘littleBits go Large’, customising littleBits to make them more accessible and again in 2015 for our ‘Sensory Labels at The British Museum’. We were runners up in the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) Engage Competition 2014 award. We have also been invited to contribute ideas to the development of new interactive displays for the Museum of English Rural Life’s Heritage Lottery funded redevelopment.

We have developed and refined methods and approaches of including co-researchers with learning disabilities in the research and design process.  This has included designing and simplifying workshop tools and activities in order to empower co-researchers to make choices, express their opinions, and actively participate in the design process. Our co-researchers from the Tower Project are sharing their workshop activities, creating Sensory Postcards, with others from their centre with PMLD (profound and multiple learning disabilities).

We have observed that consulting and working with an individual’s perspective of a museum collection also created a valuable experience for a wider user group. Apart from creating some fantastic artworks we have found our sensory objects provided opportunities for positive interaction for our co-researchers with museum workers and the public. Our co-researchers commented on how they felt they were treated with greater respect by the people when presenting their sensory objects, support workers noted how individuals displayed greater confidence interacting with the public and feedback from museum workers mentioned our interventions bringing a lively, engaged atmosphere for visitors and staff in the museum.

A book of sensory activities has been developed to encourage and support other museums and groups to explore sensory activities. We are currently working on a grant bid to create a sustainable scheme for people with learning disabilities to continue working within the museums and heritage sector.