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

Event: Dialogue Beyond Sight Exhibition ~ Dialogue

Dialogue Beyond Sight Exhibition leaflet

Dialogue Beyond Sight Exhibition | Dialogue

13 – 17 July 2016

gallery@oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf, London

The Dialogue Beyond Sight Exhibition holds at gallery@oxo London, and is a multi-sensory collaboration with 16 visually impaired visual artists and performers. It features an eclectic range of artworks including paintings, illustrations, sculptures and installations, and performances including storytelling, recital and classical songs, in a unique cross-disciplinary event.

This exhibition examines the links between artist and audience, and practitioner and practice. 10 workshops led by the artists, performers and other contributors will hold throughout the exhibition week.

The exhibition is open daily, 11am to 6pm and admission is free.

Visitors who require a quiet tour should contact the organisers for an individual tour designed for their needs. Booking is essential as places are limited.

For more information, visit

Dialogue Beyond Sight is a MaMoMi project supported using public funding by Arts Council England. gallery@oxo is owned and managed by Coin Street Community Builders.

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


Disability Arts in the Mainstream


DASH are instigators and initiators of the commissioning of new work by Disabled visual artists within mainstream galleries since 2009, enabling Disabled artists to create new work and collaborate with new institutions.

In collaboration, we seek to commission work by leading national and international disabled artists, examining the way in which diversity is an intrinsic part of the creative process and enabling these artists and venues to transcend barriers.

In 2009, DASH undertook a survey of UK galleries to establish a baseline on how Disability Arts and Disabled Artists were exhibited in mainstream museums and galleries in response to the views expressed by numerous disabled artists about the lack of representation of Disability Arts in these venues. Of the 1100 galleries asked to take part, many did not hold the information we needed, or said it was not relevant to their gallery, or simply did not respond. In fact only seven said that they had shown work by Disabled Artists since 2000.

In response to this DASH created a pilot project called ‘Outside IN’, partnering with New Art Gallery Walsall, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Oriel Davies, to commission  three new works by disabled artists. The artists were sean burn, The Disabled Avant Garde and Noëmi Lakmaier. As well as the commissioning and creation of new work by Disabled Artists, the programme also explored how these organisations could adapt and respond to the needs of working with Disabled Artists

To reflect on the success of the pilot project,  DASH changed the name of the project to ‘IN’,  IN 2012. ‘IN’ was an ambitious project, commissioning five new works by disabled artists, with five new partners:

Sound Canvas

The first ‘IN’ commission was, Zoe Partington’s Sound Canvas, which won a 2013 Jodi Award ,a Commendation for Innovation. The multi-sensory exhibition created by artist Zoe Partington in collaboration with sound artists Andrej Bako, uses sensors and digital technology to enable visitors to access art in an innovative way.

Initially shown at The Public , on its closure, Sound Canvas began an impromptu touring exhibition, visiting The Hive in Shrewsbury, Celf o Gwmpas in Llandrindrod Wells, The Courtyard in Hereford and mac Birmingham.

Zoe Partington has recently been awarded an Arts Council Grants for the Arts award to make Sound Canvas II.

Walls with Wounds

Dale Vn Marshall, Walls with Wounds, was the second commission in partnership with the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. Marshall’s stunning, evocative work is inspired by a dramatic memories, each one representing a healing journey through physical destruction and repair. H

The exhibition was seen by over 2500 visitors.  In addition to the exhibition Marshall and The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum  offered an artists talk and workshops in mark making techniques, the workshops were so popular additional dates were added.


The third commission to be realised was a curatorial commission, in partnership with mac Birmingham, Noëmi Lakmaier presented ‘Disrupted’ a group exhibition that was conceived for mac birmingham to directly respond to, and interact with, the arts centre venue, the building and its audiences. The exhibition at mac birmingham was on show between Saturday 14th March and Sunday 3rd May 2015.

Curated by Noemi Lakmaier during her year-long residency at mac, the exhibition explored the sense of awkwardness such encounters can bring, and the unique experiences and unexpected insights that can emerge from them.

Disrupted brought together both established and emerging artists working in the realm of Disability Arts, including the Swedish performance artist Anna Berntdson, London-based artist and activist The Vacuum Cleaner, Martin O’Brien and up and coming sculptor Anna Smith from Wolverhampton.

In Conversation with the Past

In April 2014 disabled artist-filmmaker Nicola Lane was commissioned by DASH and Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery to create a film reflecting on the life of deaf Romany Bill Lock, who lived and worked in and around the villages of Clun and Bishop’s Castle in South Shropshire.

At the film’s premiere in Clun, a small Shropshire village near the Welsh border, 140 people came to see the film, bringing with them photos and fond memories of Bill.  The film is planned to be shown in small museums in Shropshire and Film Festivals worldwide.

Almost a Score

International artist Christine Sun Kim was the last, but certainly not least, of the five IN commissions – with a residency at Arnolfini in Bristol. Christine’s exhibition was shown between 20th March and 5th May 2015.

During her residency in Bristol, Kim created a new film installation work in Arnolfini’s intimate Dark Studio exploring the themes of language, sound and silence. This was the first time that the artist had created a film work of this size and in a residency setting.

The residency and exhibition was complemented by a performance lecture with the artist and a specialist panel discussion, focused on the relationships between language, sound and listening, followed by an evening showcase of performative works that were inspired by the themes discussed.

The work was successful in bringing new audiences, especially those from the deaf community, to Arnolfini.

Again the purpose of IN was to create innovative and intriguing new works by Disabled Artists but also cemented a developing relationship between the galleries and disabled artists, creating a knowledge sharing between curators and artist.

The three year project culminated with a symposium at mac birmingham called Awkward Bastards, exploring the creative case for diversity, with speakers representing Disability Arts, LGBT artists and the Black Arts movement.

“Recognising their considerable expertise, leadership and track record in the realm of disability arts, DASH’s support is a great enabler. They play an integral role in bringing diversity in professional practice to this organisation and our audiences, and setting the bar for excellence in this arena.”

Craig Ashley mac birmingham


“It is really great to see an opportunity for a Disabled curator. I have felt for a long time that this was overdue and that establishing Disabled curators is one of the most important steps to bringing Disability Arts and Disabled artists into the mainstream and keeping them there.”

Noëmi Lakmaier commissioned curator mac birmingham

“Working with DASH has allowed the Herbert to recommit to accessibility in a time when all areas of work are being squeezed because of lack of money or time. Their supporting style is open, relaxed and non-judgemental which is vital when addressing accessibility issues.”

Jess Pinson The Herbert

INSIDE 2016-2018

Inside is the new  major development from our previous programmes, Outside IN (2009-12) and IN (2012-15). The scale and scope will be much broader, working with Museums and Libraries as well as Galleries to widen the scope of commissioned opportunities for disabled artists and for more audiences to engage with the work.

Applications are open to galleries, museums, archives and libraries to apply to be an INSIDE partner, until 5pm on Friday 16th October 2015.

There will be 3 commissioning venues across the Midlands. Each venue will have a partner venue, which will mean that the commissioned work will be seen in 6 settings.

We will look favourably on applications where the commissioning or partner venue is based in an area of low arts engagement.

The aims of Inside are:

  • To change the culture of Galleries, Museums and Libraries through a practical partnership with DASH.
  • To work with a number of Galleries, Museums and Libraries across the Midlands.
  • To increase the number of Disabled and Deaf artists exhibiting and/or developing curatorial skills in mainstream Galleries, Museums and Libraries.
  • To promote and develop Disabled and Deaf People as an audience, and as participants in the Visual Arts.

We will achieve these aims by offering three commissions each for £7000:

  • One to a mainstream Gallery to select a Disabled artist to ‘exhibit’ or select a Disabled artist as a curator, who will develop an exhibition or exhibitions.
  • One to a Museum to select a Disabled artist to work with their collection/audience/archive.
  • One to a Library to select


More information and the application form can be found at


Other links