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Relaxed@Newmans - Adam Sutcliffe-Brown

The Relaxed@Newmans factory tour - specifically designed for people on the autistic spectrum by Adam Sutcliffe-Brown - has connected the Coffin Works museum in Birmingham with a group it had failed to reach. Adam, who is on the spectrum, has introduced autism-friendly resources, pre-visit videos, and tour modifications.

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“Inclusion is a huge priority for us. We understand that enjoyment of the museum is not just about physical access, it’s also about intellectual access,” said Sarah Hayes, manager of the Newman Brothers Museum at the Coffin Works in Birmingham. The Relaxed@Newmans factory tour has connected the museum in the city’s Jewellery Quarter with a sector it had previously failed to reach as well as spurred efforts to educate staff on accessibility and improve the autistic offer across the heritage sector.

Adam Sutcliffe-Brown at The Coffin Works, Birmingham
Adam Sutcliffe-Brown at The Coffin Works, Birmingham © Historic England

A question of access

With its original machinery and immersive experiences, the award-winning Coffin Works provides a glimpse into the history of an old Jewellery Quarter firm that has produced some of the world’s finest coffin furniture for Churchill, Chamberlain and the Queen Mother, among others. After Adam (who is on the autistic spectrum and has sensory integration dysfunction) identified a number of issues with the venue, he was invited to work with fellow volunteer Suzanne Carter to make changes to improve accessibility and make the Coffin Works a welcoming place for all those on the spectrum and their families.

Adam Sutcliffe-Brown gives a guided tour of The Coffin Works, Birmingham.
Adam Sutcliffe-Brown gives a guided tour of The Coffin Works, Birmingham. © The Coffin Works

Friendly environment

Adam began by designing autism-friendly resources, including videos for the website with precise pre-visit information to familiarise visitors with the layout and order of events at the museum. He also advised staff on how to modify the environment by, for example, leaving out some demonstrations of loud machinery and switching off some sound effects during the Relaxed@Newmans tour. He also introduced some simple additions, such as sensory toys, that visitors could play with. “It has been a steep learning curve,” said Sarah Hayes. “We had always catered for visually impaired people, for example, so this was broadening out a bit further.”

Wooden shelf in Newman Brothers museum housing historical artefacts including a bottle of Arandee cavity fluid, a bottle of Arandee embalming fluid and two boxes of nickel-plated coffin screws
Historical objects on display at Newman Brothers museum © The Coffin Works

Outcomes

Adam’s initial aim was to help create a safe environment in which autistic people and their families could enjoy the heritage and feel at ease engaging with the tour without feeling that they were being judged. The tours are now led by Adam and volunteers trained in autism who make sure that participants are comfortable, for example by letting them know that a quiet room is available if they need to take time out. Numbers on the bespoke autism tours have steadily grown, which is testament to Adam’s hard work and creative input. 

But Adam has now taken the project much further. As part of his efforts to widen access for those with autism and others with learning disabilities, he has developed in house training, enabling staff to become much more confident in their dealings with visitors. “Adam suggested we train staff to be more aware of autism and that has been good for all of us,” said Sarah, adding that this training has had a profound impact on perceptions of autism among the staff. 

“In championing Adam and giving him a platform to develop the tour with Suzanne Carter, all of us at the museum feel more empowered and it's been mutually beneficial for all involved in the project,” she said. “For instance, we have 'real' and honest learning experiences through the training that Adam leads, which in turn prepares our volunteers for likely situations that may occur with autistic visitors, so that we're all better prepared. Staff are now more aware of accessibility in general, and are continually looking to improve the Coffin Works experience for all visitors," she said.

Office room exhibit in Newman Brothers Museum at The Coffin Works, Birmingham
Office room exhibit in Newman Brothers Museum at The Coffin Works, Birmingham © The Coffin Works

Why this category?

Once Adam had improved the autistic offer for visitors at the Coffin Works, he wanted to encourage the wider heritage community to do the same. Since then, he has presented at several conferences on the subject of raising awareness of autism and used examples of his own achievements to inspire others. The Coffin Works is now looking into developing relationships with SEN co-ordinators in schools to ensure that the museum is accessible to as many children as possible with special educational needs.

For Sarah Hayes, the benefits of becoming more inclusive outweigh any losses of running tours that generate less income. While the museum could earn more with its standard tours, she said. “For us, diversifying our audience and improving the way we view learning experiences at the Coffin Works is more beneficial than 'packing' out one extra tour a month. Even if we only reach a handful of people on the tour, Relaxed@Newmans is such an important part of our aspirations around access. For us, there are intangible benefits that can't be measured by money. This is allowing us to build relationships with the autistic community and with schools and helping to change perception around what is perceived as a disability.”

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