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What is a Dementia Friendly Museum?

As the term implies, dementia-friendly museums are there to provide a supportive and engaging environment for people with dementia. Typically, they will try to trigger memories and brain functions through non-conventional means, such as hands-on interactions or even smells, to help bypass some of the short-term memory problems people with Alzheimer’s Disease – and other conditions related to dementia – suffer from.

Of course, there are numerous ways that museums can make themselves more friendly to people living with dementia – and their carers – but these will often come down to the sort of material the museum or gallery happens to be most focussed on. That said, some tried and tested dementia-friendly designs and activities can be adapted for specific cases. Read on to learn more about the wider cultural approach to dementia engagement today and, more specifically, what the museum sector can do to make itself more friendly to visitors with brain function-related conditions.

What Is Dementia-Friendly Design?

A museum that is genuinely dementia friendly will have taken action to improve its design, layout and resources to make them more agreeable to people with dementia. In essence, dementia-friendly design means simplifying things down to their bare essentials. For example, branding and visual communication should be plain and, where appropriate, have high contrast. Of course, wayfinding notices will already adhere to such design principles in many public spaces, such as museums. In a dementia-friendly environment, more material will be styled in this way. Displayed information should have a plain background and use familiar symbols or contrasting text in an easily read font.

Equally, flooring should be in a contrasting tone to the walls of a gallery or museum. Where people with dementia pick up information visually, the contrasting tones between the floor and the walls will assist with depth perception. In turn, this should break down barriers and encourage those with dementia to move around museum and gallery spaces more freely. Why? People with dementia will typically find it harder to interpret their environment. Making these sorts of changes empowers them to decide where to go and what to look at on their terms rather than being led. In short, when the physical environment makes people living with dementia feel secure, they are more likely to engage with the content of exhibitions and the activities that also might be on offer in the museum.

Numerous academic theses show what museums can do in terms of adapting their design, wayfinding and branding identities. In fairness, most of these are related to the healthcare sector and elderly care living environments. They can be adapted to public realm design projects in most cases. Even older institutions that may find it tougher to take all of the recommended design steps given the planning restrictions they may be under can do more to make themselves more welcoming places to visitors with dementia.

What Are Dementia-Friendly Activities?

Like dementia-friendly design principles, museums can borrow from established activity-related methods that are primarily used in the elderly care sector. Activities that are good for people living with dementia will support engagement and, wherever possible, try to get around the mental blockages that many people with dementia suffer from. As such, activities should be light-hearted and never challenging or alarming. In a museum context, something as simple as handling an artefact could be all that is required to unlock memories and create meaningful engagement. The objects used shouldn’t be unusual or require special equipment to handle if they are to be dementia friendly. Typically, household objects from yesteryear are a good way to proceed but, in the end, it will depend on what sort of artefacts the institution has at its disposal as to what can be used.

As well as the visual and physical aspects of handling items, sound and smell can be used to help generate memories and prompt discussions, too. Wherever possible, dementia-friendly activities should not bombard visitors. Introduce multi-sensory elements one at a time when the visitors(s) engaging with them seems comfortable and ready for more. Multi-sensory exhibits that blast visitors with projected images and a pumping soundtrack are unlikely to be as effective as introducing elements at a more gradual rate. Remember that the idea is to get the person living with dementia to reflect on what they’re experiencing. The activity should be centred on them. Therefore, not the artefact(s) they’re interacting with so much.

In addition to handling and discussing artefacts, perhaps with an expert who can add insights about them, guided tours specifically designated as dementia friendly are something that numerous galleries and museums are now offering. One successful approach to curating a tour for people living with dementia is to organise it thematically, taking visitors to different parts of the museum to view selected exhibits only, perhaps with a narrative that can be considered and discussed as part of a group at the end of the tour.

The Wider Dementia-Friendly Cultural Scene

Museum and gallery board members must understand that it is not just their sector striving to become more friendly towards dementia visitors and those who care for them. This phenomenon is part of a broader trend to engage more with those with dementia, of which the museum sector is just one part. Cinema operators, for example, will now frequently bill certain showings – typically matinees of old films – as dementia friendly. Usually, people with dementia will take their seats in a fully lit environment to put them at their ease. The lights will dim more slowly than usual, allowing the audience to make the necessary mental adjustment for the film. Fast-moving adverts and trailers with loud soundtracks won’t feature. Again, where museums offer audiovisual exhibits, the same sorts of principles can be applied to make them friendlier to visitors.

Please note that theatres are also more and more engaged in dementia friendliness. Although some theatres will find it easier to make the necessary adaptations than others, as is the case among museums and galleries, theatrical groups like the Baring Foundation, which runs the West Yorkshire Playhouse, recognise that being more dementia friendly ultimately means greater audience numbers. Having won awards from the Alzheimer’s Society, among other groups, the foundation shows what can be achieved and the potential benefits to all stakeholders, not just dementia sufferers themselves.

Dementia-Friendly Museums – Success Stories

The Museum of London is probably the best-known institution in the UK for its approach to dementia friendliness. Sensory tours, inclusive performances and dedicated relaxed educational sessions have all been a part of its programme since the museum was at the heart of launching the Dementia Friendly Venues Charter a few years ago. Along with the promotion of clearer signage, designated chill-out zones and, perhaps most importantly, staff training in dementia awareness, the charter has been signed up to by dozens of cultural institutions in the British capital. For some in the museums and gallery sector, the charter – which the Museum of London helped to shape – is the blueprint all institutions should follow.

That said, there is room for museums to innovate and go about becoming more dementia friendly in ways that suit them. National Museums Liverpool did it by setting up a dedicated space for people living with dementia designed from the ground up, for example. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City runs dedicated workshops for people living with dementia which encourage them, with the help of specially trained staff, to create their own art. This is a model that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Australia has also followed and one that appears to be increasingly catching on among institutions that want to be labelled as dementia friendly by the public.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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