Skip to content

Engagement for all: special educational needs & disabilities (SEND) in museums

Engagement for all: Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in museums

In today’s episode, I’m chatting to Sam Bowen about her advocacy for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in museums.

Sam shares her background in the museum sector and how being a mother to a child with SEND inspired her to become an inclusion campaigner. Sam emphasises the importance of making museums inclusive for all visitors, regardless of their abilities. She gives practical advice on how museums can become more SEND-friendly, like consulting with SEND families and organisations and providing sensory-friendly spaces. This conversation highlights the need for museums to actively work on inclusion and collaborate with SEND communities to remove barriers to access.

Listen to the episode below or read the transcript.

Links a sector advocacy and guidance resource.

Sam Bowen website:

Sam Bowen on Twitter: @makedoand SEND & @SENDinMuseums


Art Engager 112

Claire Bown: Hello and welcome to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art, objects and ideas to life.

So let’s dive into this week’s show.

Hello and welcome back to The Art Engager podcast. I’m your host, Claire Bown of Thinking Museum, and this is episode 112. So I have a wonderful guest for you today on the podcast and someone I’ve been dying to speak to for a long time now. I’m talking to Sam Bowen about engagement for all.

But before that, in the last solo episode, I was talking about how to get started with inquiry based learning in the museum.

So whether you’re just starting out, or perhaps you’re looking to enhance your

existing approach, This episode is packed with actionable tips and strategies to help you overcome any fears you have, embrace the unknown, and confidently step into the realm of discussion based programmes. So do go back and listen to episode 111.

And do make use of the back catalogue of The Art Engager podcast. With over 100 episodes, this podcast is a great resource for educators. But it does take hours of work to ensure that new episodes are designed, edited and released. This show relies on your support. to keep going. So if you are able to support the show in any way, I’d be grateful.

Do go to Bown and I’ll put a link in the show notes.

And you can also help this podcast to reach more people by leaving a review, sharing with your friends, or by sharing, liking, and commenting on my social media feeds. Thank you for all your support since we started.

So let’s get on with today’s show. First, let me introduce my guest. Sam Bowen is UK based and delivers training to the museum and cultural sector globally on all aspects of welcoming children with special educational needs and disabilities, otherwise known as SEND in the UK. She also speaks at conferences, writes articles, and mentors museums on organisational change in equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Sam has worked in the museum sector for more than two decades now, during which time she’s amassed a lot of experience. She’s been a curator, education manager, and museum development officer. She brings this knowledge together with her lived experience as a SEND parent to support museums as a freelance consultant.

She’s the founder of the Send in Museums campaign, author of the Special Schools and Museums Toolkit and creator of sendinmuseums. org, a sector advocacy, and guidance resource. In 2021, she was awarded the Radical Changemaker Award in the Museums Change Lives campaign from the UK Museums Association for her work.

Her commitment to museums is to help them become accessible to the 9 percent of the UK child population who are SEND and who deserve equity. in cultural engagement.

So in my chat today with Sam we focus on her advocacy for special educational needs and disabilities, SEND in museums. Sam discusses her experience and background in the museum sector.

and how her experience as a mother to a child with SEND inspired her to become an inclusion campaigner. She emphasises the importance of creating inclusive spaces and programmes that cater to the needs of all visitors. regardless of their abilities. Sam provides practical advice on how museums can become more SEND friendly and embed more SEND inclusion in their work and programmes.

She recommends that museums consult with SEND families and organizations to better understand their needs and provide Sensory friendly spaces and resources to help visitors with SEND feel more comfortable and engaged. Overall, this chat highlights the need for museums to take a proactive approach to inclusion and work closely with SEND families and organisations to identify and address any barriers to access and participation.

So, Sam and I had a lovely chat and I hope you enjoy it too. Hi, Sam. Welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Sam Bowen: Thanks so much for having me. I love your podcast. I listen to it every time I go on a long train journey, so delighted to be on it. Oh, brilliant.

Claire Bown: Well,It’s lovely to have you here. Perhaps you could explain for our listeners who you are, where you are in the world, a little bit about yourself.

Sam Bowen:

Okay so my name’s Sam Bowen. I’m now a freelance museum professional campaigning for SEND in museums. So SEND stands for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and I’m also an inclusion campaigner for sort of cultural engagement and inclusions, inclusive playgrounds and all sorts of things.

But I’ve worked in the sector, museum sector, for 25 years. I’m mum to Lucy, who’s 14 years old, and she has special educational needs and disabilities. And we live with Craig, who’s my husband, her dad. I actually met Craig he’s a museum professional as well. So we met on our museum MA. So it’s all very very cliquey.

We live with a fluffy kitten called Rodney. And we live in Kent which is in England, in the Southeast of England.

Claire Bown: I love the name of your cat. Rodney, I think, is a very good cat name.

Brilliant.So, let’s get into your work. I see that you’ve worked in the museum sector for quite some time already. You’ve got experience as a museum curator, education manager, museum development officer.

So yeah, perhaps you could tell me a little bit about your past experiences and how you got into the work you’re doing

Sam Bowen: Yes, I’ve worked in museums, like I say, for over 25 years. The first 12 years of that was before I had my daughter Lucy, who I should explain because she is the influencer in where my work has gone. She was born with a unique genetic condition rearrangement, and that has resulted in her having learning disabilities at the severe level, complex medical needs, and she’s a wheelchair user and is a non word user.

So what I now do is combine that lived experience as being her mum with the wealth of experience I have, in the museum sector. So I started out, before I had her, I started out, I was a curator to start with in a really large open air museum looking after about 30,000 objects interpreting them, putting exhibitions on family engagement events.

I also managed a, a really large store relocation and, and did fundraising. So it was a great job to get a good grounding in so many different areas within the museum. But always for me, although I started as a curator, always for me, it was the importance of the stories locked into objects, whatever those objects are, and places.

And so I sort of drifted more into the learning side of things whilst in that job. And then I moved there and really straight into learning because I set up, I was the education manager at Leeds Castle, which is a huge heritage venue in Kent. And I set up their learning department and which was award winning, wrote their schools, programme education resources and the family learning resources.

But that came to came to a natural close and I then moved into museum development. Which if you’re not in in the UK, Museum Development is a really great service really.

It’s central sort of funded but different teams around the country. And we got involved in everything from supporting training, from anything from conservation to… Fundraising to retail management, that kind of thing. To then really nitty gritty one to one support for museums struggling through organisational change.

And I’m really proud of how hard we worked, particularly during the COVID lockdowns. Very difficult time for museums and our sector. And you know, I worked extremely hard on that, as did my family, because we were all so shielding because of Lucy’s condition.

If I just go back to when I had Lucy, because it is important, she, she changed my career. So prior, this sort of pre Lucy and post Lucy since then, and prior to having Lucy, my understanding, as I think most people’s were, to be fair, of access needs were things like physical access needs. So like ramps instead of steps, maybe braille or large print texts for sensory or visual impairment and, you know hearing loops and things for Deaf and hearing impaired visitors and possibly things like feely bags, but I used them in a way that wasn’t necessarily SEND focused.

I used them actually for families where literacy was a, was a, was a problem was an issue. So SEND was, wasn’t a word that was ever used in our sector at all. So that was interesting back then.

But when I had Lucy, I had to put my career on hold overnight because of her, her medical needs were quite serious. And then we started to, as a family, when we went on Days Out, experience ableism and exclusion due to her access needs from when she was really quite small actually.

So initially it was things like physical access barriers. So like most babies using a buggy or a push chair but obviously she was in a buggy and a push chair a bit longer than you know, normally would be the case. And so when those things like, you know, steps and or here’s a place you can’t take a buggy and here’s a buggy parking area.

She was too heavy to carry. So that was a problem. And then having. kind of difficult conversations about a child that doesn’t necessarily look disabled because they’re in a buggy, not a wheelchair and you know what’s an accessible buggy and so that I sort of made a mental note of. But also then we found that some of the actual activities aimed at children and families just weren’t accessible or flexible to us and I got angry and sad that the sector that I’d had loved working in before just wasn’t working for us as a family.

So I was lucky enough to see the opportunity of getting my old job back as a museum development officer. Obviously I had to apply for it and everything was all above board but I did see that as an opportunity to making the sector more SEND welcoming and accessible. And so I worked part time doing that and ran lots of different projects.

So in 2017 they allowed me to run a small pilot project locally. And I linked three special needs schools with three museums and we all worked together and did fantastic learning. you know, really got to the nuts and bolts about what museums need to know, but also what schools need to know. It was a real partnership process.

And the learning from that was so great, we wanted to share it.

So in 2018, I then wrote the Special Schools and Museums Toolkit, and that was the only sector guidance at the time. And it was snatched up by people, people really wanted it. So I thought, Oh, okay, there’s an audience here. So in 2019 South East Museum Development, who I was working for said, well, we’ve got some funding. Let’s make a bigger rollout of that project. So we rolled it out across the whole of the southeast of England, quite a large area, and we had 26 partners, which was really exciting. We had preschool learners up to post 16 college students, home educator group, a huge variety in terms of access needs, both learning, physical and sensory.

 And I’m delighted to say that the 13 case studies are all on the website, which we’ll talk about in a minute. So that was 2019. 2020 I then started, you know, what with the lockdowns, the online training became something which was You know, just, just turned on almost overnight. It was obvious that people wanted to know more about this.

I think there was a thought that coming back, building better was talked about a lot and coming back and inclusivity. And then, dare I say, I think, you know, the ordinary everyday Joe had a bit of a lived experience of what it’s like to get involved in it. have their freedoms limited and options limited.

And I think for a while there was a point of some shared sort of compassion and that did actually raise disability awareness globally, but also I think within our sector. So it was a good time to make opportunities of that.

So again, you know, busy time 2020 for everyone. And so I took on a two year project as well cause I knew by then what actually was needed was a portal website, a one stop shop where everyone could go to, and so it is I spent a year creating the content, working with partners to develop that and then a web designer to build it.

I would just say I’m neurodivergent as well and I’m proud that the three of us involved in creating that website were all neurodivergent and I’m proud because One of the first things people say, apart from, oh my goodness, thank you for creating this, it’s got loads of stuff, is ‘it’s so easy to navigate’ because there’s a why section and everything falls under that with the advocacy, legal stuff, you name it. And then the how was obviously a massive element, you know, sort of the why, the how, and the who. So that’s a building area where we’re sort of creating more space for professionals who can come in and share their contact details on there and, and celebrating work.

And then in 2022, I went freelance full time, and I haven’t looked back. So I do miss my museum development job, but I’ve taken what I’ve learned from that, and I’m really helping support museums now, and I do mentoring and all the rest of it, as well as resource development. For me, what’s important, and so for the listeners to this podcast as well, great, yeah, come work with me.

I’d love to work with you. But actually what I want you to be able to do at the end of this is be inspired to think, gosh, that’s an audience that I perhaps don’t work with at all at the moment, or would like to work with more. Go onto the website, find the tips, find the people. find your own local people, and start doing the work yourself actually.

And that’s not to put myself out of work, but really this is everybody’s, everybody is capable of doing this. And so when I start my training, because I’ve got that past experience of working in museums, what I always say is I will never suggest something I know I couldn’t have done myself before, if that makes sense.

I will only ever come up with absolutely practical, doable things. And I think that’s why I’ve been so successful so far with this.

Claire Bown: It sounds like you’ve had a really busy few years. Yeah. It’s brilliant taking us through your journey to the point where you are now. We will link to the toolkit, we’ll link to the website as well. It’s a wonderful resource. It is a very easy to navigate website. Brilliant.

Sam Bowen: Fantastic.

Claire Bown: But for the purposes of our international listeners, this podcast goes out around the world. Perhaps you could explain a little bit about what SEND is. I know it’s a UK recognised term. Other countries may have different terms.So that’s why perhaps it’s good to dig into that a little bit.

Yeah, and that’s really useful and I have actually delivered, I’ve spoken at conferences and delivered training internationally with the benefit of Zoom and WebEx, so that’s definitely come up for me before. So, SEND, or Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, is actually an English wide term, and it covers birth to 25.

So that’s in England. In Scotland it’s called Additional Support Needs, so ASN, you’re shorted to. In Wales it’s Additional Learning Needs, so it’s ALN. And in Northern Ireland Special Educational Needs, so just the SEN. And sometimes at the, at the early start, people say, well, what’s the difference between SEN and SEND or SEND?

And I say, well, not, not much. But really it’s the disabilities bit as well. So, although. A lot of the work has probably been shaped by my new understanding, consciousness about what learning disability is through living with and learning through Lucy as she grows. A lot of it is then as well, sort of sensory disability stuff that you can do.

So blind, visually impaired deaf and hearing impairment, and obviously wheelchair users or non ambulant. There’s so many, there’s so many other layers. But my point is. What I try and say is it really doesn’t actually matter where you are in the world and what terms are used in your country or even your region.

So it doesn’t matter if, as, as in the UK, there are actually some differences in the educational law in the, in each of those countries that affects the terminology. The point is it’s the actual access needs of that young person and child, and, and that’ll be the same wherever you are. in, in the world.

The only thing is I, in my work, I do use needs-based language. So that focuses on the individual and their access needs, rather than using diagnostic or condition-based language. And again the reason for that is twofold. So firstly jargon, if you like, or you know, diagnosis language can be quite medical based, medical model based, but it’s also can be quite overwhelming for non-medical or non-educational stuff to use and for people to learn.

And I think it kind of, what I’ve tried to, from the start is to break down any fear barriers of working with an audience for this audience. And the fear can feed into unconscious bias, into prejudice, or just not doing anything, just not starting. So let’s get rid of the labels. They don’t really help.

And also they don’t really tell what the person, you know, that the person isn’t a label. No individual is a label. So we, we don’t use those as a generic term. And like I say, they don’t describe usefully in a person’s access needs. There’s only slight variation with some neurodivergent communities for instance autistic community who have chosen to use identity first language.

So it’s just worth you remembering that, but even so when we’re talking about children and young people still go to, okay, so you’ve got a school that might be saying, I’m bringing three autistic children in a class with me, but what does that look like? What do those children individually actually need for that session to be comfortable, accessible, equitable for them?

You know, one label doesn’t cover everyone, if that makes sense.

 Absolutely. Thanks for clarifying that. I think it would be useful for, for people to really think about those terms, but also the language that they’re using as well. Make sure that any language we’re using around special educational needs and disabilities is as accessible and inclusive as possible.

And also, as you said. Human-centred. I mean, that’s a kind of nice way of summarising it. Yeah, it puts the person first, the human first and really helps people to connect with other

people as well.

Just on that note, there’s an amazing lady called Ellie Chappell. I think she’s at Ellie Chappell at on Twitter and she has this wonderful campaign called flip the narrative.

So it’s hashtag flip the narrative, which is all about that being human based and going, you know what, there’s so much more in common with each other than there is. difference. And when you can get that, I, whenever I talk, I always get goosebumps when I hit certain points, just had a goosebump moment, but when you can see that there’s such beauty in the work, which I know we’ll talk about later, but yeah, it, it’s, it’s getting over those sort of hurdles of, of language and just, just normalizing stuff, really.

Yeah, I want to tap into your experiences, not just as a museum professional, but also as a mum to Lucy, what it’s been like visiting museums over the years with her, with your family, all together, two museum professionals in one family as well. So perhaps you could tell us a bit about some of your experiences over the years.

And Lucy does actually love museums and galleries. I, I hate them. And I think we’ve been dragging her around on some kind of Busman’s, holiday . She does love them, which is why I knew, I knew, she’s taught me, like I say all of this, most of this has come from Lucy. Yeah, I guess. If things have been accessible and inclusive for us from the start, would I have come back into the museum world? Maybe, but probably not doing this, I wouldn’t have needed to. So we’ve had some fairly horrible experiences. A couple of them just to share there was an interactive installation in a gallery we go to quite regularly, a big gallery with international artists.

And this installation had been created specifically for the purpose of children and young people to climb in, engage and explore. I mean, how often do you get that in a top notch contemporary art gallery? Wonderful, great. And it looked, it was a weird shape. I won’t describe it too much because it will identify where they were.

And I have spoken to them since about it, but the point was that this was a self standing structure in the middle of a very large space. It was as we approached, we thought, Oh God, that looks interesting. We’ll have a go at that. And we saw kids sort of going into this great big space and squealing with excitement.

You could really feel the buzz and the energy around. It was great. And seeing, you know, parents enjoying it too. And then we got to it and, but it had the entrance. So that was like a foot high lip to get into it. So it actually had a step. to get into it. And it wasn’t a firm step. This thing had sort of been made from paper mache and wire and all sorts of things.

So there was no way I could get Lucy’s wheelchair into it. And she’s non ambulant. I couldn’t have climbed in there with her anyway, not, not safely. And so we just sat and watched and, and I sort of absorbed this in, this sort of shock of thinking, goodness, this has been created for a one off thing to happen in this space.

And I’m sure it hasn’t been done deliberately, but somebody clearly hasn’t thought about the access needs of, I mean, even a crawling child, a baby or something wouldn’t have been able to crawl over, but presumably be able to be picked up by their parents and placed in the thing. So we just sat there and I, as I was absorbing this sort of, gosh, that’s, that’s bad move.

I then looked down at Lucy and it was her face of just sadness, awkwardness that she could see that that was for other people. And yet another thing we couldn’t take part in. And I wanted to cry. In fact, I think when we left, I did cry.

It was so disheartening, and

Sam Bowen: so I talk a lot about othering in my training. And we, I think as a sector, we know that we’re talking about other communities as well. It comes up a lot in racial equality and EDI training.

But othering for a disabled child or young person is about seeing their, what should be a right to access play, you know, typical childhood stuff, which is good for your sense of purpose, sense of being, your identity, for communication, for developing a sense of self, or everything. The skills that play has, and I think museums are now moving more into this and understanding that they can be valid play spaces and galleries.

That is a, they are being a useful place within the community and serving the public well. Play for all ages, actually. So, if you exclude then a child. Out of that option, because you’ve physically, physically can’t get into the play space, you know, that’s just it’s just unforgivable. So that was one of the experiences.

And then craft activities as well, that and this is something I have found, something called the No End Result sort of idea now really about craft activities and that we’re not end result driven or goals driven. So some of the craft activities we’ve taken on really prescribed what good or success looks like from the get go.

So another example I have in another gallery was that we had gone along to the exhibition, it was an art exhibition, we’d seen paintings and pictures on the wall with animals in them. And then we went along to the room at the end that had a long table set out.

We could only fit at the end of the table. So as I tell this story, you’ll realize, if you can picture us at the end of a long white table in an echoey, you know, galleries often have echoey spaces, don’t they? With the children, other families further down the table from us. We went in and the lady said, Oh, well, you would have noticed the animals in the paintings today.

We’re going to make some, and specifically then quoted what she wanted us to make, which from memory was a squirrel, a fox, and a snake. And I do remember thinking, at least there’s a snake, we’ll make a snake. And then gave us three blobs of clay, actual clay, you know, like proper potter’s clay, which is quite tough to, it’s not that malleable, it’s not like Play Doh.

A rolling pin, which will come in handy. the story in a minute, and a board to roll it out on. And then as if that wasn’t bad enough, she then issued three examples of what apparently a child had made. But I mean, they were clearly crafted by this lady prior to the session.

So anyway, to cut a long story short, we sat at the end of this very long table, Lucy grabbed the rolling pin, started beating a very loud rhythm on the table with it, while Craig and I diligently tried to create these Creatures, because we thought that that’s what we had to. I mean, it’s two qualified, experienced museum professionals feeling pressured into having to perform, and Lucy performing wildly with her rolling pin, thinking it’s all hilarious.

Now the reason why that was Ableist may be a strong language because it wasn’t deliberate, but you can have unconscious ableism. You know, what if Lucy had been blind or visually impaired and couldn’t see those animals? Then you take a 2D thing, so a picture or a photograph or whatever of an animal or an oil painting, and you’re trying to use the cognizance to understand that there’s an impression of an actual animal.

And then you’re taking that and you go, well, here’s a new material you’ve probably not touched before, because this is potter’s clay. I want you to use your manual dexterity, your fine motor skills, so your finger motor skills and tools, which you might not have seen before, to create an approximation of that animal.

So there’s no sort of You know, people may have problems with stuffed animals, but there’s no actual animal there today, or a photograph of the animal. There were many ways that this could have been made more accessible. So, what I talk about now, and it was at that moment actually, was that actual very moment I thought, Enough’s enough.

I’m doing something about this. So, I’m glad in a way that that happened, but you know, maybe growth comes from bad experiences, I don’t know. But that museum and that gallery has actually now since worked with me and is, is very inclusive and open ended with all of their activities. We’ve just done one recently and it was great.

So there was learning that happened there and I’m pleased about that. But what I say with that is that activities need to be equitable as far as possible. And then that means that everybody’s getting what looks good for them, experience. So, different entry points into something. So, for instance, that same activity could have said, we saw some animals today, maybe have some pictures, photographs, magazine articles of animals or some cuddly toys of animals around so that people could then, Oh yes, that’s, that’s a fox or that was the snake or that was the squirrel.

And then, well, if you’d like to make something, well, maybe you can make your own animal up or you know. Or make some footprints, or make, you know, here’s some, here’s some pictures of what the mark making those animals make, and they’re different. You know, what footprints do you make? And, or just even exploring the process of exploring a new art material.

So I think there is beauty in understanding the process and valuing that. And it’s at that point then, and different ways that, send children in particular, but I think all children, when allowed to engage in an art or a museum space, if you sit back and let them and let them guide you, that’s when the magic happens.

It’s really exciting. Yeah.

Be happy in the process.

Claire Bown: Which is such an important part of it.

Sam Bowen: And I’ve just realized as well, because, you know, when you come on a visit, if you add their siblings in, their non disabled siblings, everybody in that group, in that family group, is affected by the access needs of the disabled person in that group. So we’re talking about. children, because we’re talking about send, but it could be grandma or grandpa or somebody else, or the parents even.

So. If you don’t make it accessible for the person that needs it, you won’t get that group. So we’re talking large numbers of people here. So it’s not just, there is a business case to this as well. And when I have advocating sessions I do for people trying to think, well, you know, this is the purpose of putting some time and effort into this.

It’s because it’s a massive audience. Families, you know, memory making is, is hugely important.

So galleries and museums are special places to making magical memory making or moments of wonder. And To not put too fine a point in it, or have to issue a trigger warning, which I do in some of my training you know, Lucy goes to a hospital, a children’s hospice because of medical conditions for respite.

Many, many children that she knows do. So memory making for families like ours is critical.

anyway. But I do think that there is a special place that museums and galleries have in in, in paying that forward for families of children with disabled, you know, disabled

Claire Bown: needs.

Yeah, that’s a really powerful way, an emotional way of looking at it as well through that lens. Thank you for sharing.

Sam Bowen: That’s okay. Can we move on to

Claire Bown: talk about perhaps how museums might. Start to

Sam Bowen: include, to be more SEND

Claire Bown: friendly, to embed more SEND inclusion in their work, in their programmes. We’ll move on to museum educators afterwards, but perhaps just how museums might want to get started.

What measures they could put in place to make visits more accessible. more welcoming, accessible,

Sam Bowen: inclusive. Definitely. Yeah. So the good thing for you guys is I’ve created the lendingmuseums. org. So even if it’s not called Send in your country where you’re listening, do go and visit it. And we’ve got everything on there from programmeming to museum facilities resources, all sorts of things, and there’s even free to download resources that you can try and use yourself and they’re copyright free, so you can put your own logo on and change around as you want.

So nowhere, no matter where you are in the world, that should be able to help you as a resource. Everything from programmeming, like relaxed events, so relaxed events. are where there may be sensory triggers, things like bright or flashing lights or loud or sudden sounds are turned off or turned down.

And and anybody can be, you know, as they want to be, basically, within a relaxed event. They’re really popular and and massively important, I think, and dead easy to put into your programmeming. In fact, actually, sometimes they save money if they’re switching things off. Sensory storytelling and send resources So anything like accessible interpretation methods, sensory backpacks, they’re really really great too.

And quite simple to use. There’s a page on the website, how to make them. I’ve just made some for another museum that was literally just launched today, actually, the Beanie in Canterbury. But things like in your shop as well, do you have like pocket money as in you know, low, low value sensory items that a child could buy in your shop.

Because a shop, I think, and the cafe, you know, those, those bookend a visit, but it’s absolutely okay. And I say this in my training, it’s totally fine if a family just wants to come in, whiz around a gallery or two, and go to the cafe and go to the shop. You know, it’s their visit. If that’s what’s good for them, and maybe when they come back, they’ll come back and do a, you know, workshop with you, or they come back and see another exhibition.

But if you do have those facilities, and they, it’s part of the whole organizational approach. And so for that purpose as well, and also your website, your website’s a window into your offer. So if it’s not obvious that you’re Send Inclusive or accessible, actually for all disabled visitors, within a couple of clicks of going into your homepage, People won’t spend more than a couple of minutes on your website looking.

So they’ll go somewhere else. You could use, once you started developing particularly send accessible stuff, you know, do take some photographs of, you know, arrange photographs obviously with permissions and get them on your website too, because I think representation is the next big thing we need to focus on within galleries and museums, representation of disabled people globally.

but certainly disabled children and young people. But how to start. So I guess, I guess I want to stress it needs to be a goal that’s adopted by everyone in your organization. So I usually use the stick of rock example until I was a stick of rock. Just explain to our international listeners is a piece of candy, which is about what foot long.

Google it. It’s layers of melted candy are rolled together and then you can put words in them basically. So I use this as an example until I was training someone in Brussels recently and they went, what’s rock? Yeah, it’s

Claire Bown: a very British thing, but you have a seaside, isn’t it?

It’s a seaside stick of rock. Yeah, but it

Sam Bowen: absolutely serves my purpose. to say that the word send or send inclusion needs to go through the whole stick of rock. So you get it now. So again, it’s another linear thing. So if there’s any breaks from being a front of house to your curatorial or your learning or your CEO and, and, and, you know, your governance or funders, even if there’s any break where somebody in that chain or that stick of rock is thinking, nah, you know, I can’t see the point of that, then it all falls down.

So Basically, everybody from the front of house, cafe, shop, cleaning staff, people forget cleaning staff and operatives and, you know, the whole operations services side of things is critical to a visit. So you know, way through then also the design curatorial learning teams, and like I said, the CEO and governance and funders but actually for a visitor and curators in particular, I hate it when I say this, it’s actually the front of house staff, the most important people in your, your gallery space in your museum.

Because if they don’t really have a particularly strong welcome or they’re not confident there was a statistic I I use again in the training from Ecclesiastical, a company who do insurance, but they did a study in 2019, thousands of people visiting heritage organizations, 42%

of them had said that they’d been made to feel unwelcome or people were just actually unfriendly to them. 42%. Although I would say here, Don’t let that put you off because, you know, the more of us that make it obvious and evident that everybody is welcome, the more that gets accepted by society, which is where actually museums and galleries start to make real. cultural change significant inclusion change by doing best practice. You can influence everybody that’s around you in your, in your setting other visitor attractions, other businesses, all sorts.

So it’s, it is powerful stuff. But yes, that statistic is, was shocking. So I say, start the conversation with all of your staff and volunteers first.

Ask who has have who’s got lived experience of SEND or disability, and you’d be surprised how much then comes out. Now it’s. Possible those people don’t want to be a champion for it. That’s fine. But if they were able and feel safe to be able to share their experience that you may then be able to say, well, actually, then for your cousin, nephew, whatever is the link how can we do better and start the conversation?

And there’s two reasons for that. Firstly, you have then lived experience within your own organization who knows your organization, and then you have buy in and buy in is huge. So you have to start with the buy in. And like I say, there’s a whole load of pages on, on, on the website under the why bits for the advocacy because I, I got a bit sick and tired of sitting in conferences where poor drained learning staff were going, yes, I want to do more of this work, but how do I, how do I get my manager convinced?

So we got that nailed now and there’s a 10 minute advocacy video.

And also what I say is, there’s a section on the website on how to actually start and how to review what you’ve got there already, because you might have things that are easily adaptable, just pick three things, just three, start doing those. Do them well, get confidence and pick three more.

And it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. I will say that. And also it’s really fun. Everybody I’ve worked with, everyone, and I’ve worked with hundreds of people now, they all say that they their own wellbeing as museum gallery staff is boosted and they see the more purpose in their job and you’re just happier with what they’re doing.

Don’t they? Yeah. Moving on from. museums in general.

So how can museum educators,

Claire Bown: better meet the needs of

sEND audiences? How can we confidently, and I think that’s a, that’s a really important word to use as well.

How can we confidently lead SEND inclusive learning programmes?

I think part of that is is installed in those planning stages. So, being able to develop stuff in what we call co curation, don’t we, but I mean partnership really, going and finding local partners. So in England we have special needs schools or there’s units within mainstream schools.

I usually suggest actually to going to the special needs schools because there you’re going to have a breadth of need and very confident staff. able to cover lots of needs. And bearing in mind as well, one child can have many different needs, as we all do. So you know, maybe see if you could work with local teachers, or maybe there’s a support group or a family support group, you know, special educational needs support group for families.

And then so there’s two, two things for that really is basically to get suggestions and sort of feedback and start maybe, you know, trialing things. But then also, can you then actually then develop a sort of focus group to help you carry on that work? There’s loads of examples on the website and loads of case studies.

So recently I did a 40 minute presentation at the Museums and Heritage show, just a stand up talk, pretty much advocacy stuff. And I got a lovely email from a lady a month later saying, thank you, that talk inspired me to be the change. I went home, I looked at your website, I developed some backpacks.

We’ve just launched them. They’re a huge success. I’ve seen the benefits immediately. I wanted you to know. You know, that gives me great goose bumps, but it also proves to me that she could do that. That person did that with just a 40 minutes.

Speech. And and the website. So, I think starting somewhere and developing something and trialing it out and then, like I said, pick three things and go forward. For specific educational programmes, the no end result rule, as we’ve talked about, is critical. We have to. put process and sometimes that is exploring materials that you haven’t seen before at the center of the thing and also valuing the place itself.

I just want to share an experience I had, which was really profound if that’s all right.

And it was school based. The advocacy film that we made the 10 minute advocacy film, which you’ll share a link to. Had two different museums. And one of the museums we took Lucy’s class to, to film them in their engaging. And because we, we needed to show in the film that it was formal education as well as families.

But three of the children couldn’t be filmed for safeguarding reasons. So they obviously still came on the visit, but when we were doing close up shots of classes and stuff, they sort of went to the side in different rooms. And I sat down with one young gentlemen, he must be about the same age as Lucy because he’s in the same class, and his teaching assistant.

And I was actually talking to the teaching assistant about how well it had gone, we were pleased with the session, and this young lad was between us, and we were sat on just an ordinary kind of flat bench in front of a landscape paintings in, in a big gallery room, big gallery, big ceilings, red walls, you know, typical traditional gallery space, portraits behind us, landscapes in front of us. And I was just, me and him were just in this teaching system, we’re just aware that this young lad was sort of really staring with this absolute look of awe and wonder on his face and wide eyes and this great big beaming smile came across his face. And so I started to talk to him.

He’s non verbal or a non word user, but I checked with the TA. He understood what I was saying and that was safe to do so. And I said, what do you like about this? Let’s have a look at this. And I started describing the painting that we saw in front of us.

And it wasn’t a particularly pretty landscape. It was a cliff actually, cliffs of Dover. So that was quite funny. So I was talking about, you know, well, you know, there are prettier ones in here, but you know, what do we like about this one? And then he just looked at me and he took my head in his hands.

and turned it to look at the other paintings and then turned back to him and put his forehead on my forehead. Obviously the teaching assistant was there at all times and was totally okay with this and then just looked again and just sort of just kind of nodded and smiled. And I don’t think I’ve had a more profound moment in my whole career.

But the teaching assistant was in tears. He said he’s never seen him act like that. And he was very calm. It was very obvious that the energy in the room was one of peace and just awe, this awe and wonder thing, which, which you know, there must be a word for it. Somebody out there must be doing studies on this.

I’d love to know, because that’s the thing. We’re tapping into that level that children like my daughter and this, this young lad get. innately very well. And it is at that point where I think I flip it. So like Ellie Chappell’s flip the narrative, I try and flip that narrative to go, actually, what can these young people teach us?

So like your slow art movement, your slow art engagement that you talk about, how can we actually step back and really absorb the atmosphere in this place and really see arts and objects for what they are? And so then the need for texts, the need for labels, the need for an audio guide just goes out the window.

You don’t need that. And it becomes quite empowering for everyone. I think. So yeah, that, that was one of my most pleasurable moments and I will, it’s a shame he couldn’t film it because he couldn’t be filmed, but I’m sharing it and it is locked in my memory bank and I’m so very grateful for working with lots of young people like him and my daughter to showing me a different way of seeing and being in the museum and gallery really.

Yeah, what a

magical moment. Thank you for sharing that. That was really wonderful. I’d like to leave with some final tips, perhaps, maybe if someone was listening to this.

Like the lady you described who listened to your talk recently and then went off and did something. What tips would you give someone listening now who is interested in incorporating some of these ideas or send inclusion into their museum and programmeming?

Sam Bowen: So first thing, let’s just start with the example I’ve just given you.

Why don’t you, if you’ve got a time where the museum is quiet or maybe you have a closed day, go around with your colleagues as a group? And don’t talk, just go. I am obviously I’m putting value here on, value judgment on the ability for visual to be able to see. I do, I’m aware of that. So we haven’t talked about visual impairment.

You have successfully in a previous podcast, so we’ll leave that there for now. But go around and just Don’t talk, see if you can, and go and really examine one or two objects and then maybe share your experiences with your colleagues, how you felt after that. Things for focusing in, if we just think about art for a minute, so so, two dimensional art particularly.

If you focus in and take photographs of specific objects in a painting, and then you can put say, I don’t know, six or seven or eight of those photographs, just small blocks, on an A4 sheet of paper, and then make a viewfinder, which is a piece of card with a hole in the middle, nothing particularly fancy.

I always laminate the sheets and things, partly because it’s easier to hold, and then you can clean it and hand it back in, but what that helps do is then, and if you put on the key on the back of the sheet so that the adult or grownup with the young person can see where those things are, go and find that.

So it becomes a bit of a search and find, but actually it, what it does is it narrows down the focus into one particular part. So maybe say it’s a portrait of somebody. Let’s think of portraits and it’s just a bow on their lovely shoe. So you can find that. I found the bow on the shoe, but then you come back from that and you go, well, actually, what’s this?

Okay, well, this is a picture of somebody. Well, their clothes look a bit different to mine. And so you’ve actually then start, you’ve slowed the process down. So by focusing attention, you can then come out from that. So that’s a really cheap, quick win, cost nothing. I mean, literally your time to print that off.

Other ways I’ve I like multi sensory stuff. So there’s something called sound tiles, but you, you find whatever recording device works for you, but you basically record. up to a few minutes of speech. And then when you press the button, it then replays that speech. It’s great if you can have a picture of whatever that thing is going to be on there.

Otherwise, there’s a bit of anxiety about what’s sound going to come out of it. But going back to the portraits, I’ve worked with places when I said, well, you know, this person’s from like 300 years ago. But there’s still a person, you know, what do they have for breakfast? Or, you know, What are they going to do for their day?

What book are they reading? Something about them as this human connection. Or maybe they can talk about the clothes they’re wearing. You know, they’re uncomfortable because it’s a corset or something like that. SEND is a broad brush. covers lots of different areas.

But even somebody like my daughter, who’s not a word user, she uses symbols, but photographs are a pre symbol stage. So start with photos because you can take them and use them and everybody gets that. But she understands language, spoken language, and you know, a lot of people in her situation do.

So Using clear language and simple structures, shortened sentences and single themed sentences is useful too. That’s a good top tip for communicating. But by all means, you can still share very, you know, complex information about an art piece if you make it relevant to the person who’s watching it at the time.

And I think that’s the case for any audience, isn’t it? So there are those and using multi sensory stuff. So another thing, going back to the portrait, let’s just stick with portraits, shall we? Because that’s a good example. Maybe you’ve got some sample fabric pieces you have either in a, I don’t know, basket near the thing, or maybe your gallery attendant could have a little bag on them or access to a basket or something where they, if they’ve noticed that somebody has paused by said painting, they may want to explore some of the fabrics that the person’s wearing in that painting.

And again, it brings it back into being in the present moment. with that painting, and the person, the human that was in, that was painted as in that painting, and the context. So you are contextualizing what has been put with paint on a 2D surface and bringing it to life. That is really what multi sensory engagement is about.

 So yeah, I think, and how, how fun is all of that? I mean, and I’ve just talked about one painting. You don’t have to do it for all the paintings, by the way, just maybe just one or two in a, in the room, in the gallery. Yeah, fantastic.

So really applicable ideas there, but easy to implement as well, which I think is, it’s,

Claire Bown: it’s part of this, but it doesn’t, we don’t have to overcomplicate it. A lovely zoom in, zoom out idea as well. And also you can communicate very complex ideas with quite simple, accessible language.

Sam Bowen: So it’s, it’s, these are very simple. It’s not rocket science, which is, I, you know, I feel awful when I say that because I think, Oh, well done myself out of a job. But it’s like, no, I want everybody to think that the feel that they can do that with, you know.

Prior to even going on a training course or something, great. Come and speak to me again sometime when you want to learn more, but you make an inroad and just start somewhere. I think that’s actually my best advice for anyone. You’re right. It probably will start in the learning team, but you really do need to involve everybody else in your organization because, you know, when somebody comes to borrow that thing that you’ve made from the front desk, if the front desk staff aren’t confident.

in explaining what it’s about, then it falls down. So it’s a team effort.

Claire Bown: Yeah. So we’re going back to our stick of rock. It’s part of the culture,

Sam Bowen: isn’t it? Maybe I should bring that out. You know, maybe I need to, no, it’s probably all being patented, isn’t it? For rock. Next project.

Claire Bown: Brilliant. Well, Sam, you’ve shared so much here today.

I’m hoping that everybody listening is really inspired to go and find out more, to think about what they could implement into their own programmeming, into their own organisations where they work. So how can people find out more about you and the work you do?

Sam Bowen: So, I’m at www. sambowen. co. uk. On Twitter, I’m on at make, do and send, and the send is capital S E N D.

But the project the campaign that I run, which is Sending Museums is And it has its own Twitter handle, which is at send in museums. And whenever you do this work, particularly on Twitter, please do share with the hashtag.

Claire Bown: Fantastic. Well, Sam, thank you so much for spending time with us today and for sharing all your knowledge and wisdom.

Sam Bowen: Thank you so much for having me on.

So a huge

Claire Bown: thank you to my guest Sam Bowen for being on the podcast today.

Hope you enjoyed our chat. Go to the show notes to find out more about Sam’s work and have a look at the Send in Museums website. This website has everything from programming to museum facilities resources and even free to download resources that museums all over the world can use to make their visits more welcoming, more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

If you’d like to connect with Sam on Twitter or via her own website, follow the links in the show notes too.

And don’t forget the registration is open for my next two VTMO courses starting in October and November. 2023. I’m now enrolling for VTMO Intermediate and Advanced. Go to the show notes or my website to find out more about my online courses teaching you how to engage audiences with art and objects through discussion and inquiry.

So that’s it for this episode. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time. Bye. Thank you for listening to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my website, thinkingmuseum.


And you can also find me on Instagram, at Thinking Museum, where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share with others, and subscribe to the show on your podcast player of choice. Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time.