Why it’s important to understand sensory processing in museums.

By Becky George


We all learn by receiving information from our senses. This means that everyone’s experience within a museum is impacted by the way their senses perceive it. Each day we are creating more and more exhibits which are interactive and hands-on to help encourage tactile engagement for the public. A smell can take people back to a certain era in history or a sound can help imagine being in that physical space.

For people who have Sensory Processing Difficulties (SPD) these enhancements to exhibits can be really helpful as there is likely to be a section of the exhibit which they can engage with comfortably. However it can also mean there may be parts of an exhibition space which may be really overwhelming for them. For example, someone with SPD may be sensitive to sound and so being in a room with a high ceiling with videos and music playing, people talking and walking can be too much for them – if this is the case they may well cover their ears and make noise themselves or try and exit the space as soon as they can. You might recognise some of these visitors wearing ear defender headphones. Their visitor experience of that space can mean they won’t want to return even if the museum is of high interest to that person.

Research says up to 1 in 20 children & adults have SPD, think how many visitors you have each day and how this statistic may affect your visitors.

SPD is neurological and is when someone finds it difficult to organise the sensory information they are receiving. This can mean someone processes too much or too little sensory input like images, colours, sounds, smells, textures etc. It can also mean someone finds it difficult to identify the location of a sensation. As well as this some people with a Dyspraxic diagnosis will fall into the section relating to how we organise the information from our joints, muscles and movements. Getting lost or feeling clumsy may be feelings someone with dyspraxia may identify themselves with which is why wayfinding throughout your space is so important.

One key way that you can support families and individuals impacted by SPD is to create a sensory map. This will highlight the areas within your museum that might be noisy and bright, or smelly and dark.

Sensory maps are so versatile and you can adapt them to meet the requirements of your setting / exhibit.

I worked with the Royal Academy of Art to help them create their sensory map – have a look here.­

The aim of the map is to create a resource which visitors could look at prior to arriving or whilst visiting to prepare themselves of where they may want to avoid or go to. For example your setting may choose to highlight the noisy and quiet areas so that for people with auditory sensitivities they can avoid or be aware of the areas which may be overwhelming for them.

Also on your map you will want to include other key information like where toilets are located, entrances/exits (is there one that is less busy than the other), café’s etc.

To learn more about creating a sensory map I have created some online training so you can create your own. On the course you will learn more about the importance of sensory maps in your settings from myself and Samantha Bowen who has incredible knowledge in museum access.

I also provide inhouse training for museums for general sensory awareness as well as supporting teams to understand sensory elements to specific exhibits, I have previously worked with Royal Academy of Art, Barbican gallery and the London Transport museum with this.