CONCEPTUALISING the £80 million V&A Dundee complex was internationally acclaimed architect Kengo Kuma’s first project on British soil. His goal was to “create a new living room for the city”, which included provision for physically disabled visitors. Universal wheelchair access and a Changing Places toilet are among the facilities designed to maximise accessibility.

Not all barriers to participation are visible, however. It is estimated that one in every seven Scots are neurodiverse, meaning that information is processed differently by their brains. In practice this can lead to overwhelming sensory stimulation in busy situations, such as days out to bustling tourist traps.

Trying to allay the fears of neurodiverse individuals is a significant challenge for all the nation’s museums, the majority of which are eager to welcome the maximum number of visitors possible in order to begin offsetting the cataclysmic losses incurred during lockdown.

Research conducted during the pandemic by an industry coalition including Museums Galleries Scotland, the National Development Body for Scotland’s museums sector, found that 71% of families with children who have special educational needs and disabilities regard museums as too crowded to visit.

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“It is important that museums continue to improve accessibility in their organisations by identifying and removing barriers that prevent visitors and staff with disabilities and complex needs from accessing services or doing their work effectively,” says Loretta Mordi, learning and engagement manager at Museums Galleries Scotland.

V&A Dundee is keen to do precisely that. After outperforming all expectations in its first 18 months – one million people had visited within little more than 500 days of opening – the Tayside museum’s advancement was sharply halted by the outbreak of Covid. While enforced closure seemed uniformly negative for the institution, one positive has since emerged.

A new Sensory Friendly Days initiative offers a safe, relaxed environment in which neurodiverse visitors are given free reign to meander through the venue’s permanent collections and major exhibitions when the site is closed to the general public.

The National: DUNDEE, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  A general view of the V&A museum by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and designer of the building on February 9, 2018 in Dundee, Scotland. The internationally renowned architect has visited the construction site to see

“As much as the pandemic has been such a huge challenge for everyone, there have been some opportunities that have accelerated accessibility and given more prominence to the subject,” says Peter Nurick, V&A Dundee’s (above) communities producer for access and inclusion.

IN addition to unfettered access throughout the museum, the events provide visitors with sensory resources including bespoke backpacks filled with tactile objects linked to exhibited items. These, along with adjustments to sound levels and lighting throughout the site, are all part of a venue-wide focus on eschewing any unnecessary stress and maximising enjoyment.

The “imaginative approach” evidenced by V&A Dundee is a “great example of what can be achieved” and represents a “great step in being able to welcome everyone”, according to Paul Ralph, access and inclusion director at Euan’s Guide, a global disability access charity registered in Scotland.

While Nurick is appreciative of all praise heaped on the scheme, he finds the greatest pleasure in the responses of attendees. “Everyone involved has seen first-hand just how much joy our sensory friendly programming brings to people’s lives”, he tells The National, adding that he is hopeful the initiative will continue even when the museum returns to seven-day opening.

THE first Sensory Friendly Day took place in August and attracted 255 visitors, comparing favourably to previous morning or evening sensory sessions that drew around 30 people.

While growing numbers are encouraging, the programme is not a money-making exercise and falls within the education strand of the institution’s work – supported in part by the People’s Postcode Lottery. “Tickets to the sessions are free of charge because they’re motivated by the good they do rather than any commercial imperative,” Nurick explains.

“While closing the museum specifically for these events in future would lose other revenues, it’s part of our wider social purpose and is key to V&A Dundee’s role in the city.”

The next Sensory Friendly Day at V&A Dundee will take place on October 19, in conjunction with the current Night Fever: Designing Club Culture exhibition