How Sam Bowen has helped change attitudes to SEND.

I set out on my museum path as a student volunteer for Norwich Castle Museum, and oddly one of my first roles saw me supporting the curator in delivering a coin handling session to a group of adults with Learning Disabilities in a day centre. I say oddly because, apart from this being a hugely successful session, it was a rare one and far from common practice in museum engagement at the time. It also was a sliding doors glimpse into my future where I now lead the whole UK museum sector in welcoming SEN. In those days even the newly created Generic Learning Outcomes for museum engagement failed to mention SEND. No one at the time was considering learning disability engagement in museums at all.

Sam and Lucy.

An encounter with the head teacher of a primary SEN unit helped me understand the gift and magic of museums for learning outside of the classroom. Then my daughter was born, with severe and complex needs. As she grew older, I saw with fresh eyes how inaccessible and unwelcoming most museums were for us. Family fun activities required cognition, memory and manual dexterity that excluded us. Access barriers were upsetting. It’s heartbreaking to see your wheelchair-using child watch other mobile children climbing in and exploring an interactive sculpture which is out of reach because there are steps. Othering stings like a wasp.

By the time my daughter was at Primary school, I felt able to return to working in museums and decided big changes needed to happen on SEND inclusion. I wrote the Special Schools and Museums guide. I spoke at museum conferences and developed training for staff.

I encourage museum staff to explore how they can create meaningful moments of wonder for their SEND visitors. This might be through resources like sensory backpacks, PECs trails or object handling, or more specialised activities such as live interactive storytelling or open-ended sensory craft sessions. The beauty of this work is that it’s accessible to everyone.

Object handling.

The message is now booming loud and clear that not only are museums places where great SEND experiences can be made, they actually, as an audience, benefit the museums themselves. Teachers are often surprised at what museums offer their students. Literally every curriculum subject is possible and the multisensory nature of museums (just the ambiance of the spaces themselves sometimes), their collections and stories tied up in them, brings history to life in ways classroom-based learning can’t.

I have also met teachers who doubted the relevance or appropriateness of museums for their students. One such example was a PMLD class on a museum visit which worked spectacularly well. The students, who had never left their class for learning, found a new world beyond the school, and the teachers gained confidence to go out with their students, to explore new areas and learn outside the classroom. A goosebump moment.

So I urge you to contact a museum and see what they can offer you. SEND students can step into different worlds, times and places that create meaningful and powerful memories for them.

Sam Bowen

In 2021, Sam Bowen won the Radical Change Maker award from the Museums Association.

Twitter: @makedoandSEND



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