Helping make the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) more autism friendly
Creating an autism friendly gallery experience for children and families at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
For some, visiting an art exhibition can be a peaceful and awe-inspiring experience, full of sensory pleasures, creativity and innovative ideas. For others, it can be an overwhelming sensory experience, with confusing behavioural expectations and visual overload.
So how can you make an exhibition or gallery inclusive and accessible for all?
In 2018 the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) worked with Autism Spectrum Australia to make a few small changes to their Biennale exhibition and created an autism friendly gallery experience for children and families. Here is what they learned.
Photographs taken at the 21st Biennale of Sydney: Superposition Equilibrium & Engagement, installation view Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2018.
Prepare visitors for what to expect
People on the autism spectrum feel more comfortable when they know what to expect. Being able to prepare themselves for what’s coming can make a big difference to how they feel. The MCA developed a range of additional resources, such as a webpage containing visual stories - using real life photographs – which presented the details of the event in easy to follow steps. This visual guide helps families and other visitors prepare for the visit by familiarising themselves with the space and behavioural expectations.
You can take a look at their webpage and visual story here: https://www.mca.com.au/plan-your-visit/access/autism-friendly-event-and-...
Give visitors the information they need to make a choice that’s right for them
In a space where light, sound and textures are used for impact, it was important to consider any sensory stimuli in the environment. Supported by Aspect’s inclusion advisor who is on the autism spectrum, a number of changes were made to the exhibits.
Sensory adjustments such as turning off sound or modifying lighting were made to the exhibits themselves and the surrounding gallery. This was the first time changes had been made to an exhibition in this way.
To support visitors, the team at the MCA designed a sensory map which identified the key sensory components of the gallery, such as low lighting, flashing lights, etc.
This gave families a choice and some control over their visit. Allowing them to avoid certain exhibits which might not be comfortable for them.
Create visual structure in the environment
When entering the exhibition at the MCA, there are a number of different pathways and routes to choose from, which can lead to people feeling lost and confused about which direction they should be heading.
21st Biennale of Sydney: Superposition Equilibrium & Engagement, installation view Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2018.
Marking a yellow path on the gallery floor for visitors to follow, allowed people to move through the gallery with ease, and made it fun too!
As visitors followed the path, they arrived at a number of art stations, which were clearly identified by a colourful rug and a number on the wall. All of these visual structures were there to help visitors feel comfortable and know they were on the right track.
Visual structure was also embedded into the activity workshop, where activities were outlined step by step and demonstrated to all participants.
Establish expected rules of behaviour
The number one rule when visiting any art gallery? Don’t touch the art!
However, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds, especially when lots of the art is displayed openly and within reaching distance – it can be hard to resist. For their relaxed gallery opening, the MCA wanted to make it as easy as possible for guests to follow this rule.
Staff replaced the “don’t touch” instruction with the simple rule “Hands behind our back” and these were explained to families before they went into the gallery. It’s much easier to follow the rules when you know what you are expected to do, rather than what you’re not supposed to do.
A second blue line was also marked the gallery floor, providing a visual clue to remind guests to stand behind the line when looking at the art.
The MCA are keen to encourage young people to engage with contemporary art. To help visitors feel engaged with the art, without having to actually touch it, interactive tactile experiences were provided for visitors to enjoy at each art station. Each art station responded directly to the art and had a range of games and activities for the visitors to engage with.
Embedding all of this structure and preparation into the event, made it easy for visitors to get involved and run through the activities that were planned.
But just as structure is key, so is flexibility. The welcoming and flexible nature of all MCA staff really made the event an inclusive and highly personalised experience.
You want to have some quiet time on a bean bag for a while? No problem.
You need a space where you can touch everything and play? No problem.
Kate Beynon, Room of Lucky Charms, 2017. Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia for the Jackson Bella Room, 2017.
Find out more about the Bella Room here: https://www.mca.com.au/stories-and-ideas/unveiling-kate-beynons-2017-bella-room-commission/
By providing chill out spaces, quiet rooms and sensory play areas, the MCA made sure that everybody felt welcomed and supported, and that nobody on the autism spectrum was left behind.