The first step in planning a new learning space – or refreshing an old one – is a consultation process.
Start by identifying your beliefs, and those of your organisation, about how your audiences learn. Know your organisational values and review why you have/need a learning space. How do you enable learning to take place? What is the essential ethos of your service that you want to maintain or refine through your space? Who are the key people who can help you develop your thinking about its future?
Through the consultation process you should aim to develop a list of audiences, types of activities for those audiences, and an indicative ‘day in the life’ of the space for different times of the year (e.g. term-time, weekends, holidays). It is also useful to develop a ‘visit walk through’ during which you and your colleagues think through every aspect of a visit, from entering the building to moving through the cloakroom, toilets and lunchroom and then leaving, in addition to the activities you want to do in your space. This information will allow you to develop your brief and establish an early budget. You can find a sample ‘day in the life’ document here.
Consult with the colleagues who plan and deliver your learning programme, and speak to other internal stakeholders. Engage too with colleagues beyond learning (e.g. curatorial, front-of-house, marketing) to build their understanding of how the space will be used. Find out what aspirations your stakeholders have for the future programme, and what they need and want from learning spaces. Who are the audiences your learning space needs to serve? Will they change in the future?
Once you have identified the current and future audiences for your space, and your own pedagogical approach for delivering learning to them, the next step is to understand what those audiences need and want from a space.
Consulting with audiences to understand their needs is essential, but remember to keep it focused on the desired outcomes, not on design details, which will come at a later point in the process. Asking audiences how they want to feel or the things they want to be able to do in the space will give you a useful set of guidelines.
Consider how you will reach all your audiences, and the ways in which they may feel most comfortable giving you feedback. Your audiences will also have priorities and ideas to contribute that you may not have thought of, so create time to hear what they think.
Questions you might include are:
- What is their purpose in coming to your learning space?
- What specific intellectual needs does each audience have. Are some learning styles more appropriate than others?
- What type of environment do they wish to learn in? Are there specific physical or intellectual needs you need to meet?
Useful resources for planning your consultations can be found at the following link: www.spaceforlearning.org.uk/consultation
Before embarking on consultation with audiences you may also find it useful to consider your own expectations of the work and how you are framing the consultation. Work in the museum sector through the Paul Hamlyn funded Our Museum project has highlighted the ways museums fail and succeed at putting audiences at the centre of their work and can provide useful background.
Useful resources for thinking about consultations include:
- In focus toolkit – consulting with the target audience, The Group for Education in Museums (GEM)
- Heritage Fund: Good practice guidance – Inclusion
Consulting with children and young people
When consulting with children and young people, it is not simply a question of asking them what they want from a space – they won’t necessarily know what is possible. There is also the issue of managing expectations: young people may make creative suggestions that cannot be implemented because of budget or staffing restrictions. And there is the temptation to listen only to the vocal and verbal young people who are used to being heard; they may not be representative, they may just say what they think you want them to say, or they may simply describe what they have seen elsewhere.
Consulting with young people requires specialist skills and experience. While many museums and other sites may feel they have internal expertise to run such consultations, others may want to use dedicated researchers. Many funders, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, will consider supporting these costs as part of a capital project, and there are alternative sources of potential help and support – see our website for examples.
Audiences with additional needs
Around a fifth of children in the UK are identified as having Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Eleven million adults in the UK have a physical or mental impairment that has an effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.
Inclusive design has emerged as a practice that seeks to ensure design of spaces removes barriers to participation and is user centred. Learning spaces should ensure that visitors with SEND are enabled to take part in activities alongside their peers, and visitors’ needs are seamlessly met with subtle adjustments that do not draw attention to them and are not medicalised. For example, choosing seating that has a variety of options within the same family of design, eg stools and chairs with and without arms is inclusive and doesn’t single out any one type of need. Having tables that are height adjustable, storage at different heights, sinks at different heights with low depths, all enable use by users with physical disabilities.
Museums and heritage sites can be over stimulating places for children and adults with SEND. The learning spaces need to be safe environments for these visitors where quiet calm reflection is possible while still maintaining a sense of place. These outcomes and needs are the same for all audiences and good accessible design improves the visitor experience for all.
To create these quiet and calm spaces consideration needs to be given to lighting, acoustics, thermal comfort and decoration of spaces. For example how busy walls are is important – one blank wall in each room is useful to avoid confusing over stimulation for some SEND visitors. Acoustics and lighting need to be right to enable lip-reading and signing. Careful specification of the lighting system and sound amplification is important. If you are creating multipurpose spaces that can be divided, can you also divide any hearing loop? If you have special equipment, have you planned extra storage space and charging points?
Key principles that will ensure access are:
- a simple, clear layout, easily understood by all, that where possible does not rely on words and numbers (eg uses colours and symbols instead)
- accessible circulation routes, wide enough for people using wheelchairs or sticks
- ergonomic details (such as door handles) that mean everyone can use them
- a range of furniture drawn from the same design family
- appropriate levels of glare-free, controllable lighting and no sudden dark or bright areas
- areas with reduced levels of stimuli (for example, avoiding sensory overload for a child with autism) to provide a calming background to learning, including one blank wall in learning spaces
- finishes in rooms that have good visual definition between walls, floors and other elements
- adequate storage or space for SEND groups’ belongings and equipment
- accessible personal care facilities, provided at convenient intervals integrated sensitively into the design. An adult change facility will also enable some groups who would not otherwise be able to visit the museum to come
In-depth guidance about the design requirements can be found in the Department for Education, ‘Designing for disabled children and children with special educational needs’, Building Bulletin 102, London 2014 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/building-bulletin-102-disabled-children-and-children-with-sen
Also see the acoustic, lighting and heating & ventilation sections of this website.
 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-for-children-with-sen-and-disabilities-come-into-effect sampled 19 March 2015
 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/disability-facts-and-figures/disability-facts-and-figures sampled 19 March 2015