It’s estimated that 1 in 20 people have Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD), so potentially 5 percent of your visitors will be affected by the sensory challenges of your museum setting. It can be difficult to appreciate what’s different about the way they access, engage in, and enjoy your museum so here’s a scenario to consider:
Imagine going to the cinema to watch a film you’ve been desperate to see, but when you get there and have paid your hard-earned cash for the ticket, you are faced with a lumpy, uncomfortable seat, which is a bit damp from the cold drink the previous occupant dropped on it (you hope it was their drink!). The person sitting behind you talks to their friend throughout the entire film. The tall man sitting in front of you, who partly obscures your view of the screen, is noisily devouring a smelly plate of chilli nachos with extra cheese whilst his partner has an irritating giggle that she shares loudly at all the wrong moments!
Did you enjoy the film? Do you remember much about it after you leave? Chances are you will remember the challenging sensory experience long after the film.
When we visit museums and galleries, we are stepping into large public spaces full of people we don’t know and around unfamiliar territory that we haven’t mapped out. Even if we do know the layout of a museum well, often the displays change and with them our visual points of reference.
All of this adds up to an exciting adventure into the unknown. For most people, museums are true explorer spaces, where visitors get to engage with collections and stories far from their everyday lives. However, this can be a bit intimidating for some. Add to this the sensory aspects of your setting and it can become an overwhelming, even unpleasant experience, like the cinema example above.
Sensory challenges may come from loud noises such as public announcements, staff giving guided tours, or exhibition display noises. It can even come from the space itself with echoes bouncing off high ceilings and concrete walls.
Sound, light, shadows, smells, and large numbers of people can all overload a sensory experience for someone with SPD, who may find it difficult to filter those things out. This makes feeling safe and happy in a situation more difficult, and enjoying or engaging in a positive experience almost impossible and much less memorable.
When the person with SPD is a child or young person, it usually falls to the parent or adult with them to manage their upset due to sensory challenges. SPD can form a characteristic of autism or neurodivergence, but it can also be common in children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), who have different needs. Museum staff don’t need to know about a person’s diagnosis, but they need to know how to mitigate the sensory stressors that their environment may cause.
Luckily, there are plenty of things that can be done to support visitors with SPD. “Quiet”, “Relaxed”, or “Sensory Calm” times describe when display sounds are switched off, lighting is set to normal levels, and any automated interactives, such as roaring dinosaurs, are silenced. You may choose also to switch off loud hand dryers and provide paper towels during these times. Loaning sound-minimizing headphones and fidget toys can also be helpful.
Sensory maps help visitors with sensory processing needs identify where triggers are in a museum and either avoid or prepare for them.
Some examples of sensory maps are:
Make sure these maps are easily found on your website under the accessibility pages. For more guidance visit:
For staff training visit: Sensory Spectacle
Also read Becky George’s blog Why it’s important to understand sensory processing in museums.
Think back to a time when you were last in a busy public space trying to get something done; the big weekly food shop in a busy supermarket is a great example! How did you feel surrounded by all the noise, crowds of people, and bright lights of the store? Did you need your shopping list to focus your activity and block out everything else around you, or are you more of a sensory seeker and like the buzz of a busy place?
Now think about your museum or gallery and the spaces within it. What are the obvious external impacts on how a visitor may experience that space? Sounds, light and dark areas, and the visual “busyness” of displays, text panels, and labels all demand our attention.
Think back to the supermarket. Generally, you only look for the items on your list or that you know you like. How can you help your museum and gallery visitors select what they would most enjoy when they visit you?