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Moving Beyond a Traditional Museum Access Programmes

The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, New York is an institution that knows how to engage with its audience. The team at the museum have long recognised the need to listen carefully to its audience – including neurodivergent children.

At the MuseumNext Digital Summit, Sara Thomson and Marie Fazio from the New York Transit Museum, along with collaborator and speech and language pathologist, Ashely Quinto, shared how the Subway Sleuths programme, devised for children on the autism spectrum, has changed over the past ten years. They detail the value of delivering specialized content through a tailored delivery style to enhance their educational programmes.

Devising Subway Sleuths

The New York Transit Museum developed Subway Sleuths just over 10 years ago to specifically meet the needs of neurodivergent children. It’s a semester-long programme for ages six through to 11.  The purpose of Subway Sleuths is to build on shared interests in transit to develop social interaction between peers using small group work (up to six students), a special educator, speech language pathologist and museum educator. Each semester is unique and is built on the goals of experience sharing, collaboration and problem solving.

Pre-pandemic, Subway Sleuths was very much an in-person programme which took advantage of the vintage subway cars in the decommissioned subway station of The Transit Museum. The transition to the virtual programme, enforced by Covid lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, presented a series of challenges. Firstly, sessions were shortened to just 40 minutes to help retain attention over zoom.  The number of adult participants was also reduced to keep the sessions small and more focused on creating connections between the group.  There was also the most important challenge of how to incorporate the museum and its collections into delivery of the programme. Luckily, the Transit Museum had created a virtual tour of its halls, spaces and the subway cars before the pandemic, and so participants were able to use the tour as a key visual facilitator to support the memory, collaboration and problem-solving aspects of the programme.

Group interaction through games

One of the main problems encountered by the Transit Museum in delivering Subway Sleuths was maintaining audience engagement within the parameters of the goals and themes of the programme.  They managed this by creating a series of fun games.

Pass the Train is a game which supported participants to share their knowledge while “throwing” a train or object to other participants. This encouraged other sleuths to be attentive and keep moving in the virtual sense. Make a Train worked in a similar way, only this time encouraging participants to work together in pursuit of a shared goal to build a train through a series of pre-selected items. The participants or ‘sleuths’ could then expand on this with other museums by creating art or buildings for greater partnership opportunities.

The importance of scheduling

All programmes were scheduled and agreed at the beginning of each session so participants knew what to expect and how the day would pan out.  The visual schedule was colour coded like subway lines to maintain that brand synergy throughout.  Similarly, participants have expectations that are reviewed by organisers regularly to ensure the sessions run smoothly.  Examples include the organisers asking for only one conductor announcement ,which would help to ensure that only one participant talked at any one time.

Online vs In-Person

Like so many organisations, the Transit Museum actually found using virtual platforms to offer a number of advantages. The most important advantage was, of course, widening the geographic reach of the audience and being able to engage children outside of the New York City Metro Area. The digital platform also had benefits to those for whom an in-person programme may not have been feasible – be it for medical issues or due to physical disabilities.

Maintaining focus was also an added advantage that became clear from the online delivery model. Many members of the audience found it easier to maintain attention through a screen, without many of the distractions of in-person visits. The museum can be an overwhelming environment and so keeping that small group attention online was important to achieving the required outcomes. It allowed participants to be comforted during a confusing time through their shared interests in transit.

Sara Thomson, Marie Fazio and Ashely Quinto spoke at the MuseumNext Digital Summit 2022. To find out more about this event and to learn how you can access the talks on-demand click here.


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