Neurodiverse Networking for Museum Professionals

This blog post was written by one of the leaders of the Neurodiverse Networking for Museum Professionals Session, Lisa Collinson. Muse from Nowhere is grateful to the participants in this workshop for their thoughtful, accessible and meaningful contribution.

The process of developing the Unconference session ‘Neurodiverse networking for museum people’ was, like the writing of this blog, a tentative, early-stage exploration of some of the ways in which neurodiversity might shape social interaction amongst people working in and around museums. From my perspective as a neurodivergent but (in this field) academically non-expert person, both the act of co-creation of an ‘unconference’ session and the act of crafting this blog-style text on the theme have been ‘experimental’ in a broad sense, in that both have been opportunities to explore new, relatively open-ended forms of academic and professional communication. Although the longer-term outcomes remain to be seen, the short-term impact on my own thinking on this topic has already been overwhelmingly positive, with a real increase in clarity on several points.

The original idea to propose the session came partly from exposure to various discussions of autism, in particular, and partly from reflection on my own professional practice (formerly as a medievalist, now as a museum worker specializing in academic liaison), as well as that of past and current colleagues, in a variety of settings. Most significant of all was recent discussion with members of the Scottish Women’s Autism Network (SWAN), which had raised many questions for me, relating to diverse forms of communication in a range of all-autistic and apparently non-autistic, or (perhaps more commonly) mixed contexts. (For those interested, the fast pace of development in this field means that Twitter offers a genuinely useful entry point. Two key names are Dr Catriona Stewart OBE and (Dr) Damian Milton.) However, the more I discovered I was learning about social interaction amongst autistic people, the less I realised I knew about this aspect of other profiles, including (but not limited to) ADHD and dyslexia, and it seemed to me that it would be extremely useful to explore this further, in open discussion —ideally with other neurodivergent people, amongst others.

A second motivation to take the leap of proposing the session was a sense that there might be some real urgency to the challenge of tackling this topic. As the unconference demonstrated, there is (quite rightly) an increasing need for museum workers to be able to discuss a number of acutely sensitive issues in depth, both within and outwith their organizations. However, there has been (to my knowledge) little discussion of the possibility that participation in such high-stakes communication might be, on the one hand, extremely desirable for some neurodivergent people (who may have much to contribute), yet on the other, a source of particular anxiety — especially if communication has proved difficult and painful in the past. Preliminary discussions with people with other relevant profiles suggested that this might be an area of interest for a wider group, and that there was potential for open discussion to be helpful (and hopefully thought-provoking) for the sector as a whole.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the exercise was the way in which it highlighted the often excellent nature of networking amongst neurodivergent people —before, during, and after the event. Since I had some worries about the open-ended and online nature of the session, as well as my own lack of experience in a field which itself requires sensitive communication, I contacted Marion McLaughlin, whom I had met through SWAN and the One Stop Shop in Aberdeen, for advice. Marion immediately offered to come along and co-lead, along with another colleague, autism consultant Felicity (Flick) Goodhall. The next day, Lise Bos, a new museum colleague with ADHD and ADHD-training experience, also expressed interest in the session and very kindly accepted an offer to join us. This change was made possible thanks to the exceptional flexibility of the unconference organizer, Jen Walklate, and the four co-leaders were then able to plan the session together, as a team. (I also had a very fruitful pre-session conversation with Chris Gray of the University of Aberdeen, for which I am extremely grateful.)

The planning of the session, and the session itself, were both hugely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating, and it was excellent to see session participants feeling comfortable enough to join in using the online chat system, looked-after so skilfully by Jen. As we explained, one of our aims as session leaders was to ‘show’ as well as ‘tell’ something of the potential nature of neurodiverse networking, by demonstrating communication processes which were partly entirely natural, and partly planned, with ideas of accessibility in mind (for example, ensuring adequate breaks from the potentially intense social interaction).

Another of the accessibility measures we introduced was adding a short note to the session description, inviting any session participants to meet me one-to-one before the session, in the hope this might help lessen any potential anxieties about meeting new colleagues in the highly unfamiliar, loosely structured, online unconference space. In the end, none of the attendees requested a one-to-one meeting, but it did lead to a thoroughly useful and enjoyable online meeting with a hitherto unlinked colleague with related interests.

All in all, the unconference provided an absolutely excellent opportunity to explore some very early-stage ideas with a range of extremely thoughtful colleagues, both within and outwith the sector. For this, I’m hugely grateful to Jen Walklate and the Muse from Nowhere team, as well as all the session attendees, and of course, the wonderful neurodivergent networking co-leaders: Marion McLaughlin, Flick Goodhall, and Lise Bos.

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