Dementia-inclusive approaches at the National Galleries of Scotland

The National Galleries of Scotland run a varied programme of creative activities for groups and individuals living with dementia.

The programme is supported by the Friends of the National Galleries of Scotland. The focus of these sessions is on playfulness, enjoyment and connection. The Galleries are social spaces and being able to enjoy these spaces with others who may be going through similar experiences can be helpful for people affected by dementia; it can help to combat social isolation and assist with depression and anxiety. We aim to create an inclusive environment where all contributions are valued and those who take part are encouraged to explore their own creativity, share experiences, connect with others and grow in confidence.  

Dementia-friendly tour at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Image: Andy McGregor

Gallery Social

Gallery Social is a monthly programme of free, relaxed artist-led tours for individuals affected by dementia to enjoy with friends, relatives and supporters. Each month, these sociable sessions start off with refreshments and a light-touch creative activity that participants can take part in if they would like to. This is followed by a short, conversational tour exploring a small selection of artworks. The programme originated at the National Galleries of Scotland in 2013, but based on the format developed by the Galleries, has now grown into a partnership with National Museums Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, St Cecilia’s Hall and Edinburgh Zoo. The partner organisations each offer one session a month, at the same time on consecutive Friday mornings. Together we produce a booklet (co-designed with participants living with dementia) to promote the sessions and provide helpful information. Collaborating with other organisations in this way has resulted in a much larger, regular offer that is full of variety but also regular and dependable for people living with dementia.

Tea Dance at the Portrait Gallery. Image: Andy McGregor

Dementia-friendly Music Concerts

Working with Live Music Now Scotland we programme quarterly Dementia-friendly Music Concerts at the Portrait Gallery. These are free, drop-in performances on quiet weekday mornings that are open to all, but particularly suitable for those with dementia and their families and carers. The concerts are thirty minutes long; comfortable, supportive seating is provided, the atmosphere is informal and the repertoire includes songs that the audience are invited to sing along with. Recently, we invited parents and carers of young children to attend one of these concerts, giving it an inter-generational aspect and resulting in a lively, inclusive and joyful atmosphere.

Reel Folk project in partnership with Live Music Now and Capital Theatres. Image: Greg Macvean

Special events and group visits

In addition to our regular programmes, we have special events throughout the year that link to collection themes, festivals or special exhibitions. These include tea dances, creative workshops or performances for those living with dementia. We often take a multidisciplinary approach, combining art with music, storytelling or dance exploring the connections that can be made between different disciplines and art forms. By combining these different elements we find hope to create more surprises, and more possibilities for memory or inspiration to be sparked.

Care homes and community groups are invited to select from a menu of options including dementia-friendly tours, outdoor art tours, themed reminiscence and creative workshops that can be booked at any time during the year. The artists who lead these sessions focus on fostering a relaxing environment and use straightforward, open-ended techniques. We aim to leave space for people to get absorbed in something without having to follow too many steps and we also want people to be able to have a laugh or a chat.

Storytelling workshop. Image: Andy McGregor

Creating an accessible environment

As it is for many organisations, making the whole gallery environment more accessible and inclusive is an ongoing priority.

From visitor feedback, we know how important it is to have warm, proactive front of house staff that make people feel welcome. The majority of our front of house staff, including representatives from the shops and cafes, have received training in dementia awareness and the National Galleries of Scotland received special recognition from Alzheimer Scotland for its commitment to staff training.

There have been some practical steps that were relatively simple to take, for example, painting areas of our toilets in contrasting colours to make them more user-friendly and easier to navigate.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) learning spaces

We offer portable hearing loops and wheelchair loans as standard on all of our booked visits, but we also purchased some portable ‘lightweight’ chairs with backs and arms that can be used on tours in the gallery spaces as our portable stools did not offer the comfort and stability that many of our visitors with dementia require.

We are lucky to have a new learning space at the Gallery of Modern Art, so that was a great opportunity to think about creating an environment that was as dementia-friendly as possible. This was done by avoiding too much pattern in the decor. We used colour contrast in the colour scheme of the room, making sure that chairs and tables contrasted with floors, choosing dark coloured cups and saucers to contrast with the tables. We also purchased lightweight chairs with back and arm support. These are small details that were relatively easy to incorporate, but nevertheless important in making our visitors living with dementia, feel more comfortable.

Looking to the future, the Scottish National Gallery is currently in the midst of a major redevelopment project to redesign part of the Scottish National Gallery and to redisplay the national collection of Scottish art. This, of course, is an opportunity for us to make the building fit for purpose for groups with a range of access needs including visitors living with dementia.

Accordingly, we have carried out a series of focus groups with disabled visitors and expert organisations, including visitors living with dementia and representatives from Alzheimer Scotland. The sessions looked at mapping visitor journeys, finding out what people wanted before, during and after a visit and the findings have been fed into the creation of spaces and experiences in the building.

Meg Faragher
Communities Learning Coordinator, Learning and Engagement Department
National Galleries of Scotland