By Sam Bowen
This is a picture of my daughter Lucy playing an African drum on a visit to The Powell Cotton Museum, in Kent. It records a turning point in my view of museums. You could say that this picture, or rather the engagement it shows, was the start of my campaigning to ensure that all museums become SEND friendly. The events leading up to this moment, don’t have photos attached to them and that’s because they weren’t for us, positive memories.
That says a lot doesn’t it? That we only record the ‘good times’ for prosperity. Sadly the upsetting times are already etched on our memories and don’t need photos to remind us of what inaccessible or un-inclusive experiences look like. They very much did ‘happen’ and have an unnerving ability to crop up when you are feeling low about something else, just to add a cherry on top of the turd that is ableism.
Up until this photo was taken, our museum and gallery experiences were at best on the fringes of engagement. Despite both being museum professionals and comfortable in these settings, once we had our daughter, we found them almost overnight to be exclusionary and closed to our needs as a family.
Trying to ‘fit in’ with the rules prescribed in family art activities that required good vision, memory recall, comprehension and manual dexterity, firmly shut out the fun exploration art truly should be. The focus was always put on the “end result” instead of the journey of participation and discovery that all art and craft can deliver.
As a hobbyist artist and crafter myself, I know that the ‘making’ is every bit as important as the finished piece. You may be able to list artists for whom the ‘process’ is such a journey, they give over wholly to the end result itself deciding when it has been reached.
When we do art at home, Lucy has a free rein to explore different materials and enjoy the experience. If she happens to create something ‘wall worthy’ then all the better, we aren’t one of those families that keep every scrap ever produced! During lockdown, we took part in many different ‘art through the post’ kits which often had a steer or suggestion for activities but were flexible enough to accommodate different needs and abilities. Because of this we created stop motion films, block printing, shaving foam marbling and explored many more different materials in our own way.
Recently, Lucy and I have been involved in music projects with artists and this has made me think more about different art forms and our perceptions of ‘good’. I’ve also noticed an allowed freedom of expression music brings which is perhaps less restricted than other art activities.
Hand a child a piece of paper and art materials and they are either likely to ask, “What shall I paint?” or you will have already said “Paint me a …” Hand the same child some musical instruments and you are more than likely to let them explore them without prompting. The music or sounds they create will be unique to them, probably not recorded by you and almost definitely not replicable. They will be the results of moments in time, exploring sound, pace, and objects with individual creativity and self-expression. As this picture proves, give the child space to engage in their way and their experience will be valid and valuable to them.
I’d urge museums to relax a bit, to re-write the dialogue about ‘end results’ and achievement, because that is too one dimensional and you immediately create an invisible score board with built in failure when you talk like this.
Instead, try to remember why you are engaging with children at all in your spaces. Are you trying to ‘teach’ in a family session or trying to facilitate memory making and celebrating the awe and wonder of experiencing new things?
The latter sounds very aspirational, doesn’t it? Ironically it isn’t, you just need to give yourself over wholly to the journey and let the child be in control. We don’t just restrict a SEND child’s horizons when we make assumptions of their creative ability, we restrict our own experience by never allowing ourselves to enjoy them.
Twitter: @makedoandSEND and @SENDinMuseums