Welcome Back to Your Museum

“To me, the museum is a place for myself. It’s where I can really center myself. It’s somewhere I can go and feel like it’s a second home. And that’s what a lot of cultural institutions, once you create these connections, become. This is where I want to go to get this sort of self-fulfilling experience, to spend a day doing some learning of the heart. It’s the feeling that is most important.” – Ross Edelstein

By Julie Blair and Christopher Flint

After months of shutdowns due to Covid-19, the reimagining and reopening of museums across the world has been like reconstructing an ancient mosaic, with lots of pieces still missing.

Museums are desperately working to stay alive in these unprecedented and disconnected times. Both small and large cultural organizations need to create new connections with their audiences who already love them but are now distanced, and also those people who have not yet discovered the life-sustaining gifts of museum culture.

Museum connections to art, history, science, nature, anthropology, and social culture can be a sustaining touch point for people as they navigate their days in this time of pandemic.

Is this a good time for people with autism to connect with museums?

To shine a beam of light on this question the team at Infiniteach has produced a video of a conversation that shares perspectives on museum access in the COVID-19 environment by visitors with autism spectrum disorder.

Ross Edelstein, Museum Studies Master’s Degree candidate at Indiana University – Purdue University – Indianapolis and Nate Deitcher, Greeter at The Franklin Institute in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania share their insights through a double lens. Both of them are emerging museum professionals working within today’s challenging environment, and they both have autism. They give breath to the issues that people on the spectrum are facing, and how museums can provide the connections that they need.

Ross and Nate make me want to cry, to shout, and to fall in love with museums all over again. Listen in on their conversation with Infiniteach Chief Creative Officer, Christopher Flint and see if you agree.

“For a person whose mind feels disjuncted from the world – from my everyday life – I feel like my mind feels foreign, displaced, and constantly bombarded with sensory information – and I’m trying to physically and mentally navigate that. Withdrawing from common life and going to a place that can provide an intellectual or aesthetic vista – and be transported to a previously hidden world – that is a vital function that museums and cultural institutions provide.” – Nate Deitcher

What about exploring museums using technology?

“A lot of the lessons that we are learning about technology connection can be applied. But it’s not going to be a replacement, because we’re going to keep fighting for people to be able to have these connections in person, and for museums not to decide that technology is the only place to connect with people with disabilities. But the thing is, technology is going to be a much bigger part of this post-Covid world than it would have ever been before.” -Ross Edelstein

Since shutdown, museums have been in a scramble to reach out to connect with people through digital technology, creating customized content for the pandemic era.

In many ways, the isolation of Covid-19 has fostered accessibility using this technological pivot, a silver lining for the grey cloud. Much of the on-line content available through websites consciously combines museum collections with social connections; virtual tours with curators, virtual camps and workshops with artists and educators, and special events including book discussions, lectures, and performances. Creative, out of the box thinking has provided walkable city artworks maps and Spotify playlists.

Social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have come alive with postings connecting museum content to phones and tablets worldwide. If you are a social media user search for your favorite museum or expand your museum sphere with popular hashtags like #MuseumFromHome.

Wouldn’t it be great to actually be in a museum?

“The pandemic has exacerbated problems that were already existing, but just driven a much sharper wedge. When this ends it’s going to be harder for people with autism to enjoy their regular activities in the social world. Museums need to be mindful of not just returning to a pre-pandemic world; we need to be mindful that some people have been deeply impacted emotionally, psychologically, by this pandemic. Museums need to accommodate to that.” – Nate Deitcher

As museums begin to re-open and you feel ready to venture out, research is key.

Look to your museum’s website to see what accommodations have been made to welcome visitors back. Information should include staff and visitor safety plans outlining mask, crowd control, and sanitation routines policies. Are special small group or family programs being created? Have open or outdoor spaces been spruced up? Look for an accessibility or special needs link for accommodations such as early or priority entry, and downloadable or app-based Sensory Maps and Social Story Narratives to help in preparing for your visit. Show your support to museums that demonstrate an active commitment to welcoming and engaging visitors with diverse needs and abilities by sharing your feedback and suggestions, as well as your appreciation.

We find ourselves in a time of empowerment, when museums are stepping up to address not only visitor safety and comfort, but also inclusion of diverse audiences that may not have been comfortable participating in museum settings before. Let your voice be heard.

Our challenge to you is to take time to connect with your museum. What is your museum doing for you? Are museums making life better for people with autism? Could they do more? What do you think?

Listen to Ross and Nate’s personal reactions to museums culture here: https://youtu.be/k48UFkysCWE
Listen to Ross and Nate’s thoughts on museum access, digital technology, challenges for visitors, and strategies for success in the complete interview here: https://youtu.be/xRQonW0Hl4g

Julie Blair

As an accomplice in accessibility and inclusion, Julie Blair seeks to connect people with Neuro-Diverse perspectives and abilities to museums and cultural spaces. Her experiences as a Speech Pathologist, museum docent, and accessibility trainer and consultant enable and fuel her passions. You can contact Julie at jblair@a-muze.us.

Christopher Flint began his career as a special education teacher specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Since leaving the classroom, Christopher has trained over 12,000 parents and teachers throughout Illinois and across the United States on best practice autism strategies. Christopher is also the Founder of AACTION Autism, a nonprofit providing autism training and resources to partner organizations in developing countries.

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