All-inclusive heritage adventures

Liz Ellis, Policy Adviser Communities and Diversity
In the latest in a series of features promoting good practice in inclusive heritage projects, Liz Ellis explores HLF-funded projects that involve people with learning disabilities in Northern Ireland and Wales.

Enjoy. Learn. Flourish. These life enhancing words are the school motto for Riverside School in Antrim, Northern Ireland, and they are now motivating all of us here at HLF too! Young disabled students and staff at Riverside have been living these values through a new project designed to take pupils on a heritage adventure, with the help of a new interactive projector. The projector has been used to display photos, taken by students on local heritage walks, onto the floor, allowing other students to explore and interact with them. A local historian also came to Riverside to share his Antrim memories. He brought along photos from his childhood and fascinated the students with his stories.  

Riverside pupils have been using the projector to learn about local history and plan for more heritage adventures. For students ranging in age from 4–19, some with profound learning disabilities, this projector has brought heritage to life and helped them to immerse themselves in local heritage.

I recently spoke to teacher Cathy Gaston who described the crucial role the new projector plays in providing sensory stimulus to students with profound learning disabilities. “Heritage has a wonderful practical element that can be used in so many cross curricular ways,” Cathy said. She went on to describe all the art, history – even maths projects – that are emerging with the help of the projected heritage photographs. These photos stimulate responses through the students’ movements, supporting engagement through colour, image and sound.

I asked Cathy what she thought the benefits of Riverside’s heritage project were. She told me: “It’s the amount of areas of learning that these heritage activities have opened up, it’s enormous”. Cathy also told me that the whole school has been involved in shared learning about heritage, using the new projector to develop resources – and helping students to flourish in the process!

Engaging experiences in Wales

Over in Wales, learning disabled participants have also been exploring local heritage through the Hidden Now Heard project. This inclusive heritage project engages the experiences of those with learning disabilities in a three-year learning disability and social history project.

The project’s main focus is to capture the memories of former residents and staff of long-stay hospitals in Wales. Volunteers, including people with learning disabilities, have been involved in all aspects of the project.

Sara works at Mencap Cymru and is learning disabled. She worked on the Hidden Now Heard project and told me: “I used to go to museums, now I’m part of the process and part of the hard work making all this happen. I really like getting immersed!”

Sara trained in recording oral histories from adults who have lived and worked in long-stay hospitals across Wales. Sara’s advice to other learning disabled organisations is: “Don’t be afraid to try something new, it’s a challenge – be open minded.”

Sara and her Mencap colleagues and project participants talked to me about the complex personal and ethical challenges raised by this project. Paul Hunt, Project Coordinator said: “Meeting some of the people (who lived in the hospitals), you realise the system wasn’t perfect, it was challenging hearing about some of the histories”.

The Mencap Cymru team recently presented Hidden Now Heard at the Social History of Learning Disabilities Conference. They received excellent feedback, which just goes to show the trailblazing nature of this innovative heritage project.

Laura, who also works at Mencap, explained how they were able to make the project fully inclusive: “Heritage is a personal thing and a collective thing, everyone can contribute.”

Practical training, support and mentoring have all been vital. I asked HLF mentor Dr Kathryn Hann for her advice for learning disabled participants and organisations who are new to heritage projects: “Never underestimate what people are capable of!” she told me, “The Hidden Now Heard team have been great at asking for expertise from gallery and museum staff, we have all been involved in learning in this project. Together we’ve managed the problems and now Mencap Cymru have expertise about social history in addition to all the knowledge they had already!”

Recordings from Hidden Now Heard have been made accessible to the wider public through temporary exhibitions at local museums. The recent spring 2015 exhibition was displayed in Swansea Museum. It featured interactive displays and activities, which allowed visitors to listen to oral history recordings while lying on hospital beds; and listen to the staff phone at the nurses’ desk. A third exhibition will be taking place in September 2015 at Wrexham Museum.

The team behind the project have now taken their research to a global scale with the creation of a new podcast series. Project Coordinator Paul Hunt explains: “The Hidden Now Heard podcast is a series of full interviews with former patients, their relatives and staff members from long stay hospitals across Wales. Each episode will focus on one person telling their story. The first interview is with Paul Sutton who trained as a nurse at Hensol Castle Hospital in the early 1980s. The podcast will be updated a few times a month with new interviews conducted by the Hidden Now Heard team”.

Back to top of page