A Visit to the V&A With Sensory Consequences

Guest blog post by Neuk Collective member Libby Lilburn

This a review of my visit to the V&A Dundee, through the lens of someone who is Autistic, has Sensory Integration Dysfunction[1] and Fibromyalgia, and my thoughts on how galleries can be more accessible to all disabilities.

Walking into the V&A Dundee, I get anxious knowing the stares I get going up the ‘grand stairs’ to reach the exhibition spaces. I mean who wouldn’t when you’re wearing noise-cancelling headphones and sunglasses, with a comfort plush on hand to help keep anxiety at bay. Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) is along for the ride knowing ‘they’ can have ‘fun’ at my expense in situations like these, and although I have my support sister by my side out and about, I’m still apprehensive yet hopeful my visit won’t end in a Sensory Overload like the times before.

A notebook page with a handwritten mind map. It's difficult to read the writing, but text includes: "What I feel visiting the V&A Dundee: Hyperactive, overstimulated, anxious, catious, careful, inspired?, overwhelmed, stressed, annoyed, sad, judgemental, contemplative, unbearable."

Although the V&A has a larger open space and is physically accessible, more could be done when it concerns those with invisible/dynamic disabilities, or even us on the Neurodivergent spectrum, to be considered truly accessible. In venues like the V&A all noises echo down from the upper floors down to the lower foyer, whilst constant chattering from visitors bounces throughout the space as I walk up the grand staircase, already tingling from SID’s excitement and anticipation for the unknown. As I step onto the upper floor, I don’t see a place where I can escape to get some quiet and unwind from the already oncoming overstimulation, except the toilets, which are not an ideal location as they are a prime trigger that SID likes to latch onto with racing thoughts about ‘germs and wet hands’ going through my head meticulously without pause.

Walking into the ‘Tartan’ exhibition I’m met with a multitude of screens, bright lights and reflections galore all vying for my attention, making reading any form of text explaining the content within the space almost impossible. This isn’t to mention the auditory ambiance I hear echoing throughout the space all the way from the other side of the room, in a section of the exhibition I have not even seen yet.

I’m already feeling stressed from all the sensory stimulation around me, (which SID finds all very appealing) that I find it hard to focus on and take in the actual contents of the exhibition. This ends up with me almost speed walking and skipping to-&-from sections of the space in order to take it all in as quickly as possible before I inevitably get overwhelmed.

By the end of the exhibition, I’m on high alert and eagerly awaiting the moment I can get out of the V&A as fast as possible, skipping sections- and the potential quieter more enjoyable moments- in my haste to get out of the space before my stress and senses get the best of me. I’m contemplating on my way out from our visit on what more could big institutions like the V&A be doing more for inclusion of disabled & Neurodivergent voices in order to be considered ‘truly accessible’. The topics and exhibitions the

V&A feature are intriguing to me, but I can never truly let myself get ‘immersed’ in or to even relax during my visits as I’m always on ‘Alert Mode’, looking out for the next potential trigger that my SID is gnawing to cling onto.
Something as simple as the inclusion of quieter spaces within museums would let those like me unwind whilst feeling overwhelmed and would enable us to enjoy these visits to our fullest.

Well, these are my thoughts back in the car, feeling melancholy and trying not to focus upon all the negatives of my visit as they race through my head. Wondering what could have been considered in order to have gallery visits like these be less stressful on my senses, and the boundaries that bar me from being inspired, not overstimulated by a visit to the V&A.

About the author

Libby Lilburn is an artist whose work primarily tackles nuances around disability and mental health. Much of her work is based on her experiences living as a neurodivergent individual in a neurotypical world.

Libby’s website: https://libbylilburn.weebly.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/catmastertibs/

[1] Sensory Integration Dysfunction is a fancier name to describe someone who has either hyper (more) or hypo (less) sensitivities to one or more of their senses, e.g. I’m hypersensitive to visual and audio stimuli, meaning I’m more sensitive to bright lights and loud noises.