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In conversation with: Samantha Bowen, SEND in Museums

Sam Bowen with daughter Lucy

Sam Bowen with daughter Lucy

An experienced museum professional, an educator, an inclusion campaigner, developer of the highly regarded SEND in Museums website and SEND mum; Sam Bowen is an inspiring character in the museum world. She describes her approach as pragmatic and optimistic but, as her 2021 Radical Changemaker Award would affirm, she is also not afraid to ruffle feathers on her mission to ensure that the museum sector becomes truly SEND welcoming. 

Having recently delivered a powerful and thought-provoking talk at the MuseumNext Growing Audiences Summit, Sam kindly spared a few minutes of her time to share more about the genesis of SEND in Museums, and outline where she hopes museums will be on their inclusivity journey in five years’ time.

“In many ways my career journey as a museum professional has been an unusual one,” says Sam Bowen. “I didn’t go to university until my mid-twenties, having started out in the Police and Probation Services. But as soon as I started my undergraduate degree I took on volunteer work in local museums and ultimately went on to complete a Masters in Museum Studies at the University of East Anglia.

“But perhaps more unusual is the fact that I walked straight out of university and was fortunate enough to land a role as a curator as my first paid position. Being a small independent museum, I learned so much on the job. It wasn’t just about managing the collections and carrying out research; I also got to dive into a lot of other areas.

“In particular, working alongside the learning and development manager on schools projects and then taking the lead on my own family engagement initiatives really gave me a taste of what would later become my area of expertise, I suppose.”

Sam would then go on to work in a number of other positions in museums and cultural institutions around England but the idea of reaching new audiences and engaging with what at the time were known as “hard to reach families” was never far from her mind.

“What was really apparent to me during that phase of my career was that ‘Accessibility’ could essentially be boiled down to feely bags, a couple of ramps and some signs with large text. While those are all important steps, there was a sense at the time that this was the special needs and disability box ticked.

“Very quickly, I realised that we needed to be flexible and able to accommodate a variety of needs rather than simply laying out a token gesture provision that we hoped would accommodate the needs of a particular SEND group.”

Today, Sam splits her time between her role as a Museum Development Officer and as a freelance consultant running SEND in Museums. It is this freelance work that saw her recently awarded her Radical Changemaker award.

As Sam explains, her own perception of museums has been shaped by first-hand experiences as a SEND mum with her daughter, Lucy. Not being able to access the activities, displays and services on offer at cultural and heritage sites proved to be both frustrating and upsetting for Sam’s family – particularly when other families with non-disabled children were having an enjoyable and unrestricted day out.

Sam is quick to clarify that it isn’t simply about pointing the finger at people for their lack of thought:

“I did it myself as a learning manager and as a curator earlier in my career. But it’s just too easy to create activities, exhibits and interactive elements that are exclusive – that just aren’t in any way suited to children with special needs.”

It was the frustration of visiting institutions and finding them completely inaccessible for her family that inspired her to establish the SEND in Museums website.

“What I found was that there was also a willingness and an eagerness amongst learning staff to implement meaningful change. But they were also facing the usual issues of lack of budget, time and resources that made it difficult for them to turn what they wanted to do into a reality.”

Having already written a Special schools and museums toolkit, funded by Arts Council England as part of a project she had worked on in Kent, Sam’s solution was to create a hub for information, advice and advocacy. As she puts it, a “home” for all the valuable insight and support that could help to build support and ultimately drive progress.

Further funding from Arts Council England made the SEND in Museums website possible. And the events of 2020 made it simpler in many ways for Sam to pursue her mission.

“It’s an odd thing to say but the pandemic really was the catalyst for a surge in interest relating to accessibility and inclusivity. It was also the perfect time to get our guidance, advice and training out there. Everyone was at home; everyone was free for training and looking at how they could have a slice of the online audience.

“And, ironically, it gave people a tiny taste of what it feels like to have your life restricted in the way that SEND families do. This amplified people’s empathy and it’s something that has undoubtedly helped to fuel the progress we’ve made in the last two years.”

Having very quickly garnered both national and international attention, SEND in Museums has helped many institutions to improve their capabilities and work towards the equality of experience that Sam has long advocated for. She says,

“We’re seeing case studies from all around the country come in. And I hope we’re moving towards a time in the not-too-distant future when museum staff don’t simply say that they’d like to do more to improve on-site accessibility. Instead, they will say things like, ‘Yes, we’ve done this to enhance our programming; we’ve added a detailed floorplan and helpful information to our website to support visits; our front of house staff have had training on working with SEND visitors. That kind of response would be a clear sign of success for me.”

As the wealth of information on SEND in Museums grows, so does the evidence that supports why advocacy is so critical. As Sam suggests, many SEND families come to a museum space with previous bad experiences as “baggage”. But the more good experiences that can be nurtured, the more the museum will develop a loyal following.

“If the experiences of parents like myself aren’t enough to get museum management and stakeholders engaged, then the value of the purple pound – the UK disability community – certainly should. 8% of the UK’s children are SEND children and when you add in the rest of their family that’s 20% of the UK population.

“Why wouldn’t we be doing more to cater for such a large portion of the public? For those museum professionals who need to see the value within their business model they need only consider that, as a group within society, the disability community have a spending power of £249bn!”

Sam continues, “What I hope I got across in my recent presentation for MuseumNext is that museum spaces should be for everybody; that they are relevant for everyone. And, also that making them accessible for all shouldn’t just be a nice idea; it should be essential.

“Through our website and the hard work of many museum professionals who are committed to catering for visitors of all backgrounds and requirements, there are now so many resources, ideas and guidelines out there. There’s no longer an excuse for institutions to not be doing something about their provision for those with special needs and disabilities.”

Asked finally what’s next for her and for SEND in Museums, Sam says:

“The next step for me, I think, is to address representation within museums. I think there is still a lot of work to be done there.”

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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