Sensitive Spaces: designing museum experiences for those who live with dementia



As I recover from serious jet-lag, I would like to take some time to reflect on the presentation I gave at MuseumNext, Indianapolis last week. The conference, as the name suggests, brings together a variety of delegates from all over the world who all work within the Museum and exhibition industry. The theme of the conference was ‘the inclusive museum’, and although this theme aimed to narrow down the ideas in the conference to one common thread, it only proved how broad this subject really is. People discussed a variety of topics from questioning how museums can be inclusive in times of financial crisis to engaging communities of colour. My own talk, entitled ‘Sensitive Spaces: designing museum experiences for those who live with dementia’ was inspired by the fact my great-grandmother currently lives with dementia and my mother is working hard to not only raise the profile of this disease but also to encourage all of us to work together to create a better future, this website being her most recent initiative! Having studied ‘Information Experience Design’ for my MA, with a focus on museum and exhibition design, I tied these two interests together to explore what could be done within museum and exhibition design to encourage those with dementia to visit these public spaces that have so much to offer.

My main aim for the talk was to communicate why it is so important that we include those with dementia in everyday activities, enabling them to retain a high quality of life for as long as possible. Currently in the US, every 67 seconds someone develops Alzheimer’s disease. The number of people developing the disease is rising fast and we need to make the world more prepared for the realities of this. The feedback I have received since the talk has been great, with several people coming to talk to me about how they will make changes within their own museums to make them more dementia friendly. This has been very satisfying and I hope that people now continue to be inspired and actually make those changes and spread the word.

I tried to make the solution as simple as possible so that people could see that changing these museum environments was absolutely achievable and not costly. It is simply about being more mindful and aware of the difficulties people with dementia face and how we can approach each of these. The fundamental purpose of designing an environment which takes into account the person with dementia, is to compensate for the symptoms and effects of dementia and to support retained function, skill and ultimately an individual's independence.

  • ‘So what can we do? Well we can start simply by saying that those who live with dementia should not be bound to a care home - let’s forget about care homes, let’s pretend that the whole world is one big care home, what would that mean?’

I used Hogewey, a care home in the Netherlands, as an excellent example of how care environments can be created with thoughtful spatial and experience design. The home uses all-day reminiscence therapy and this benefits those that live there by helping them stay active and giving them a sense of purpose. The residents are happy and require less medication than those who live in regular nursing homes. By taking inspiration from the simple design solutions used here, museums have the opportunity to create spaces that are truly inclusive of everybody.

For me the museum of the future is a proactive, empathetic, space that can facilitate conversation, activity and a generate sense of community. I hope that my talk inspires people to make the simple changes I discuss in any public space that they work in whether it be in a care home or a cafe. We need to work together to create a future that we can all live in.

Please feel free to watch the recording of my talk which can be found in the ‘videos’ section of Bright Copper Kettles, or please get in touch if you would like to talk more about this subject: heidi.benham@network.rca.ac.uk.


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