Emotional data: creating inclusive environments in Cornwall

This Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) project by Elizabeth Cross and Dr Katharine Willis began as a master’s project for Elizabeth’s Masters of Architecture at the University of Plymouth. The project worked with the Tate St Ives art gallery, as a part of a wider access Tate project called the ‘Welcome Project’. This project aims to view the gallery experience through the eyes of all of their visitors, with a particular focus on those vital first five minutes of the journey into the gallery. One of the key groups Tate identified was those with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). 

Elizabeth’s study used a specially designed biometric wearable device to collect data on stress levels, which was worn on the user’s fingers while they walked around the gallery, measuring the emotional response of their reaction to the surroundings. A key characteristic for someone with ASD is that they struggle to communicate verbally how they are feeling. Therefore, to be able to measure the emotional response of the person with ASD, without verbal communication, provided valuable research.

“The people at the Tate had no idea about how these types of experiences were happening to people and it made them have some empathy about the fact that people on the autistic spectrum were avoiding visiting the galleries at all, or in the rare occasion they did visit, they would really not enjoy themselves.”

Dr Katharine Willis, Associate Professor at the University of Plymouth

The initial report of the outcomes of the study to Tate St Ives successfully communicated and evidenced how architectural layouts can cause stress levels in people on the autistic spectrum to rise. The focus of the project was to evaluate the current inclusivity of the Tate St Ives gallery’s space and identify key ways to create a less stressful and more inclusive space for those on the autistic spectrum.

Through the SIF funding facilitated by The Bridge at the University of Plymouth, the project has now been extended to the Tate Modern where a small-scale study has been conducted. From this study, the outcomes of the emotional data audits have been exchanged between Elizabeth and Katharine to the Tate staff at both galleries, in order to facilitate a way in which this information can be used to create a much more comfortable experience for visitors with autism.

The work was presented to senior management at Tate St Ives in 2018, and has informed the development of their ‘Welcome project’. As a result of this project, the Tate St Ives have already began making small changes to create a more inclusive environment, which they hope will encourage more people with disabilities to enjoy their gallery as well:

“The study has allowed us to work from real data rather than imagined or assumed and has indicated a shockingly high and consistent level of stress for visitors with autism or social anxiety. In fact, it’s likely many would never visit us at all. This data has informed us in a deeply meaningful way and has ignited interest across the staff team and our closest partners. We are committed to making a change and very much hope we can continue to work in collaboration with the University of Plymouth to work on the solution and reassessment stages.” Zara Devereux, Senior Visitor Experience Manager, Tate