On the Road to Communities

Published on 24 May 2022

An article about Amy Crawford Sensory Backpack project.

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A little introduction – my name is Amy Crawford and I have been working on a wonderful Sensory Backpack project that I would like to share. If you read this blog and have or know of a group that may be interested in using this free resource, please get in touch. 

Since I began volunteering in a care home in 2015, I have always been passionate about reaching people that might not otherwise have the ability or resources to travel by themselves to workshops or museums. There’s nothing more rewarding to me than brightening up the afternoon in a care home. 

When I joined the University of Dundee Museums in July 2021 as a Museum Engagement Officer – thanks to funding from Museum Galleries Scotland – I immediately knew I wanted to work with their collections to create a travelling backpack of objects, almost like a modern travelling ‘cabinet of curiosity’.  

Having graduated from the University of Dundee BA (Hons) Fine Art course in 2017 – and subsequently the MFA Art and Humanities course in 2018 – I was already well acquainted with the museum collections having based my Degree Show on the herbarium collection. 

I often thought what a wonderful resource the museum service was and had great ideas as to how we could take it to the people in Dundee. The D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum which houses a lot of our natural history collection is currently only open of the second Saturday of every month to the public – the rest of our collections are placed all over campus, and partially kept in our storage in Hawkhill House – incidentally the oldest building on campus. 

I had fond recollections of being shown around by our curator Matthew Jarron from my student days – it really is quite like a different world in Hawkhill House. Collections are neatly stored and ordered in small rooms, from rows upon rows of teaching charts to crystals in jars and taxidermy creatures to modern art and sculptures.  I knew we had to find a way to take some of them out of dark storage and to the community. 

The backpack we wanted to create had to be accessible as possible. This meant including a variety of items as well as some that would benefit people with visual impairment and dementia. We tried to focus on different tactile materials for stimulation. The backpack itself is in a constant state of flux and we are altering and changing the objects based on various feedback from different groups.  

I wanted initially to focus on care homes as our first point of contact. The Covid-19 pandemic hit the care sector particularly hard and activities for residents suffered as external groups were restricted access. We always quarantine the bag and wipe down any items inside to be as Covid-19 safe as possible. 

The great thing about the backpack is it can be either delivered as a session run by myself, or we have the option of loaning the bag for a week to be talked through by carers with their relatives or staff.  

So far, rather wonderfully, community groups and care homes have been eager to have us deliver the sessions which we have been enjoying. 

The objects in the backpack aim to provide a springboard for discussion, recollection, debate and questioning, and the discussions can last a while as we’ve discovered! 

Our museum herbarium is home to over 13,000 plant specimens from Angus to Darjeeling. The problem with taking these pressed dried specimens out of their storage is that they are incredibly fragile – it would be difficult to put them in a backpack without crushing them. 

Our solution was to create custom wooden laser etchings using our herbarium as source material. These are highly detailed copies and are raised allowing individuals to feel the fronds of ferns for example, or the leaves of a rose. Having used laser cutting as a technique in my 2017 Degree Show, I was eager to use it as part of the backpack.  

One man in a care home we were in, when simply smelling the wood of the laser cuttings, started telling me about woodwork techniques that he knew, and I explained the modern technique of laser cutting. We both learned something that day, and it was lovely to see his eyes light up at the prospect of telling me about his carpenter skills and the friends he used to know – he told me: 

“It’s nice to get a new perspective on these things because once you’ve done something for a long time you get used to it and you don’t see the modern things.” 

Alongside these etchings we have include selected scents of different flowers from our collections. The scents that people enjoy are varied and they aren’t for everyone (especially if adverse to perfume etc) but scent is one of the most powerful vehicles for triggering memory recollection. This was confirmed by one of the care home staff: 

“I found it amazing that the sensory backpack triggered so many happy memories for the residents. One lady who doesn’t communicate much and was very sleepy before the session began seemed to gradually come to life! As soon as she was given the chance to smell the scents of the roses and violets, she began to talk about how she’d loved her own beautiful garden… It was heart-warming to see residents engaging in the way they did.” 

Our museum collections house thousands of artworks including paintings, sculptures and video works. In the backpack we have included high resolution copies of some paintings and sculptures, both traditional and modern for a full gallery viewing experience. The paintings come with brushes for each type of paint and small canvases with textured paint on (after all, you can’t get the full experience of an oil painting without feeling the texture!) We’ve found this works particularly well for those with visual impairment. 

I have found it spark wonderful discussion and debate as to what art ‘actually is’ and what it means to the older generation. I introduce them to the more traditional paintings first and then challenge them with some more modern sculptures. I often find they initially are intimidated by some of the ‘soft sculptures’ but then soon delve into discussions as to what, for example, makes it differ from a pillow, what was the artist’s intention behind the work and what does it mean to them? 

Rather wonderfully, people who by self-proclamation ‘aren’t into art’ seem to want to get their opinions across, and we’ve had great group discussions stem from these objects. One lady thought it was no better than a pillow, another acknowledged the hard craftsmanship that went into the sculpture and another two were trying to figure out what stitch had been used! 

In the Zoology department we have included a specially created 3D print of a Nautilus shell. This sparks discussion on D’Arcy Thompson and his interest in growth and form. One lady told me her husband was a Marine Biologist but confessed to me that she had never had a chance to learn what any of it actually was about, so loved having a chat with me about D’Arcy and his love of Foraminifera (tiny microscopic organisms that live at the bottom of the ocean).  

Another gentleman loved the real beach shells that we have included to contrast with the 3D printed one – he started delighting us all by explaining what each shell was and how he would eat ‘Buckies’ with a needle straight from the shells in Carnoustie. D’Arcy Thompson also loved beachcombing, and I couldn’t help but wonder If he had ever eaten a ‘Buckie’ straight from the shell! 

To quote one of the care home staff:  

“I spoke to one resident today… he said that because he is losing his sight, it was good to be able to feel things – he said he likes practical things. The shells brought back memories of Carnoustie – he used to enjoy going there. He also said it was good sitting round the table with you and the other residents. He enjoyed the chat and liked being able to talk to everyone about what he could remember from days gone by.” 

The backpack contains much more including custom 3D prints, fabric swatches and sculpture material samples that cover our collections as well as the interests of D’Arcy Thompson himself. An easy-to-read booklet guides you through the experience from start to finish, and if delving into the backpack by yourself we will also leave you specially designed D’Arcy Thompson colouring sheets before you hand it back to us.  

Any groups that feel they could make use of the backpack are welcome to get in touch. We aren’t limiting ourselves to care homes – we are branching out currently to schools and community groups so please pass this on to any who would make use of this free resource.  

If you can’t wait to get your hands on the backpack – follow us on Instagram for videos and snippets of our collections, as well as information about our latest projects and exhibitions – @uodmuseums 

Written by
Amy Crawford
Museum Engagement Officer
Museum Services, University of Dundee


Amy Crawford

Museum Engagement Officer