MASSILLON — With so many things to see and do, museums can be overwhelming.
From the bright lights and lively spaces, to vivid art and new treasures around each corner, a visit can cause sensory overload for some.
To ensure that everyone — no matter the age or ability — can enjoy the full experience, the Massillon Museum has created a sensory room. It's a special space where folks can take a break and feel calm.
"It's a space for everyone, but it is outfitted for individuals with sensory challenges," said Megan Fitze, the museum's education and outreach manager.
Fitze, with the help of the museum's accessibility committee, spearheaded the creation of the 468-square-foot space on the lower level of the museum.
While the room was created with visitors who are autistic or have sensory issues, Fitze said, breastfeeding moms and parents with over-stimulated toddlers, or anyone who needs a calming spot, can use the room during museum hours.
The museum has worked in recent months to make the facility more friendly to all visitors. Many exhibits have braille labeling, and the facility is wheelchair accessible.
Like the museum, more facilities are on a quest to make places frequented by the public more inclusive and enjoyable for everyone. Quicken Loans Arena has a quiet spot, and the Akron Zoo and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton offer sensory bags.
In the hall's effort to be more sensory inclusive, it consulted KultureCity, an organization that works with venues to create acceptance and inclusion for all people with unique abilities.
The Hall of Fame sensory bags are equipped with noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads for use during a visit. The bags are available at the guest service office at no charge, according to a news release from the Hall of Fame.
A dedicated quiet zone also was created for guests who need a calmer environment.
With guidance from VSA Ohio, a group that advocates for accessibility and equality and helps to ensure the arts and art education is more accessible to all people no matter their disability, the Massillon Museum's sensory room was outfitted with a number of items to create a calm space.
The walls are painted a soothing blue. Writing on the wall features universal symbols and words. Adjustable lighting featuring sky panels soften the light in the room.
The lighting, Fitze said, continues to be a work in progress. While some sky panels have been installed, the room still has some fluorescent light fixtures, which can be a trigger for people with sensitivities.
The rules of the room are on the wall and are simple and direct. A sign on the door will indicate if the room is in use.
The sensory space also has a number of seating options such as a yoga ball, a comfortable chair and a beanbag chair.
Other items are available in the room such as a yoga mat, weighted blanket, noise-canceling headphones, a sound machine, timer and eye mask.
They also installed elements of play and engagement, she said, which tie into exhibits on display. An activity using felt objects encouraged visitors to create their own artwork inspired by the Stark County Artists exhibit.
Embracing the museum's ongoing construction project, another activity includes using toy building bricks to construct a masterpiece.
Visitors to the room will also find a variety of fidget spinners and two "zen gardens," boxes filled with beans and items hidden within.
One of the boxes, which are on casters and can be moved, is wheelchair-accessible while the other is toddler height.
"You can stand next to them or grab a chair," Fitze said. "And because they move, we can move them out of the room to be used elsewhere, or someone who might not feel comfortable being too close to the wall can move it into the middle of the room."
A work in progress
The new room opened in late fall, and Fitze said feedback has been positive.
While the museum is not tracking who visits the room, Fitze is asking those who use it for an evaluation. Users have pointed out the temperature was too cool. Others had concerns about the lighting.
"Overall, they are pleased," she said. "We are trying to work on some of the issues and the room is going to evolve. We are learning as we go."
Fitze said there are a number of DIY projects that the museum hopes to include in the sensory room, such as putting different textures on the wall.
"We just have to be careful not to over-curate this room," she said. "A blank wall can be soothing to some."
Fitze has seen firsthand how the room can benefit museum visitors. During a recent visit from an adult day care service, one of the clients became frustrated, anxious and upset. Fitze informed caregivers about the sensory room. The client visited the room, found comfort and stayed there while the remainder of the group finished the visit.
"It worked great for her," Fitze said. The museum visitor was able to have a good experience, albeit different from her counterparts.
The sensory room was created as part of the museum's expansion and renovation project. Funding for the items in the room came from a Puffin Foundation West grant, which focuses on partnering with organizations to bring artistic expression to marginalized groups.
The room is open from 9:30 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
A space for all
VSA Ohio Executive Director Erin Hoppe applauds the Massillon Museum and other cultural venues that are embracing those with disabilities.
"One in five Americans has a disability," Hoppe said. "You probably know someone with a disability but it could be hidden."
Sensory rooms are valuable resources, she said. People may need a break because of a migraine headache, epilepsy or PTSD.
Having a dedicated space where visitors can find refuge before continuing on is so valuable, Hoppe said.
"They are creating a welcoming environment giving everyone more opportunities," she said. "Instead of having to scrap the visit, maybe they need just five minutes to have a break and get away from people and the noise."
Museums, and other facilities that create welcoming spaces where everyone feels comfortable, are connecting with the community, she said.
"By putting this together, they are saying to the community you are welcome here," Hoppe said. "Bringing accessibility into every day at the Massillon Museum, not just on special events, is an important initiative for all community members.
"I think people look to the Massillon Museum and say, 'They mean me; I am welcome there, too,' " she said. "They are sending a message that we know that people come from all different walks of life but we want everyone to have a great experience while here."