Kirkleatham Museum is on a mission to ensure it is accessible to all – getting families to enjoy the museum, its grounds and all the facilities is top of the agenda.
To that end staff first visited the Links family support group at Daisy Chain to hear first-hand what issues affected families with autism then decided to undertake autism awareness training to help them understand and accommodate guests.
Museum manager Joanne Hodgson explains, ‘We do have visitors making us more aware that they have children affected by autism or other learning difficulties and we needed to understand how to improve the visitor experience, make it more welcoming for them and offer extra facilities if they are needed.’
Ellen Bissell, Kirkleatham Museum’s education assistant and access officer, organised the training with Daisy Chain for museum staff, and says, ‘When we spoke to families at Daisy Chain they were telling us how difficult it can be to go out anywhere as a family. We do so much for families at Kirkleatham Museum, lots of crafts and activities that we wanted to make more accessible.
‘The training showed us how we could make a difference by just making a few small changes and adaptations. As part of the training we were able to walk around the museum and identify what might have the potential to cause a problem such as any unnecessary sounds, making it clear what areas of museum are out of bounds.
‘We have a lot of school visits and it is good to be able to identify any children who may have some issues and know we can put measures in place to help and the staff are aware of how they can help too.’
The museum has introduced a quieter hour every Sunday between 10am and 11am and at Christmas they offer two relaxed sessions per week to see Santa with bookable times so children don’t have to queue. Joanne adds, ‘Families made us aware last year that there was disturbance and noise when we started Santa’s Grotto. It’s a really popular attraction so we wanted to make that accessible to all and ensure that visitors were not disturbed by the changes during the run up to Christmas.
A quiet room has been set aside for use by families if a youngster gets distressed and they need a quiet space. Ellen says, ‘We also have a box of tricks with toys and fidget toys to offer to children to help them calm down. We had a group in from a secondary school and I could see one boy was finding it too noisy and he was just watching the activity from the doorway. I discreetly gave him a fidget toy and it really helped make his visit easier for him. It was great to have the ability to make him feel more comfortable and relaxed. It worked so well I told him to keep the toy – he went away with the toy and a positive memory from his time at the museum.’
The museum is also putting together visual story images of each of the rooms and display areas in the museum so children can see what it is like before they visit and understand what they can expect to see – included in that is also the peacock and couple of turkeys that wander the grounds.
Joanne describes Kirkleatham as a large museum but with a small staff of 11 and only around half of those are full-time but they do not intend lack of time to stop them making positive changes for accessibility. Ellen says, ‘When children have a positive experience on a school visit we want them to be able to come back and bring their family.’
The museum offers training and work experience for volunteers with extra needs too. ‘Accessibility for all is what we are all about,’ Joanne concludes.