On Friday morning, a small crowd of carers and people with dementia gathered at the entrance to the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Kilmainham.
They were there for a tour – the first of a series at IMMA this spring that is part the Azure programme, an initiative aimed at making art galleries and museums dementia-friendly spaces.
“It’s about reducing the barriers that people living with dementia experience in terms of being able to access cultural activities,” says Caroline Orr, IMMA’s engagement and learning curator.
IMMA is not the first cultural space to run dementia-friendly tours, says Orr.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had an Alzheimer’s-friendly art programme back in 2006. It was called “Meet Me at MoMA”, and some organisations in Ireland took note.
In 2011, four organisations – IMMA, the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, Age & Opportunity, and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland – came together to develop something similar.
The tours at IMMA take a delicate approach, says Orr. “We try provide a really welcoming space, an understanding space,” she says. “You’re greeted by the facilitators and then we move into the gallery.”
Instead of showing visitors a whole exhibition, staff at IMMA choose three or four works for them to engage with. On Friday, they selected works by Lucian Freud in the Garden Gallery.
Each staff member, trained by Azure to give tours for people with dementia, works in their own way.
But in general, they start by describing the art, exploring its meaning, and ask visitors to chip in with their thoughts.
You don’t need your short-term memory to have a reaction to an artwork. That’s one of the most important aspects of these tours, says Orr.
“You have the opportunity to simply sit and look at the work and absorb what you’re looking at,” she says. “It’s all about slowing down the pace.”
Staff talk about different parts of each artwork and encourage people to participate. The tour ends with a cup of tea or coffee, and a chat.
Bairbre-Ann Harkin, of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, says the tours can sometimes remind those who take part of times past.
“Because, for the hour that people are participating in this tour, they’re kind of no longer the person being cared for and the carer,” she says. “They’re just two people who are doing an activity together.”
“So, for that time, people respond to each other again as husband and wife or mother and daughter,” she says. “The focus is on the art and doing that together.”
Orr of IMMA says that Azure tour training takes time. But she’s hoping more cultural spaces will come on board.
“We’re certainly hoping to expand the network,” she says. “Ultimately we would like to expand this to more museums and galleries.”
Ciarán McKinney of Age & Opportunity, an organisation promoting activities for those over 50, says he’d like to see a national network of dementia-friendly cultural spaces with specifically trained staff.
Art galleries were the first step. “But there’s absolutely no reason why it wouldn’t also fit for any other kind of a place with a collection,” he says.
It’s also an experience for carers, says McKinney. “We’re facilitating a conversation, a shared experience,” he says. “The person living with dementia is often surrounded by other people as well, so this is about recognising that.”
In 2011, Harkin of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny had just returned from an internship at MoMA in New York.
Later that year the “Dublin Contemporary” exhibition ran dementia-friendly tours like those in the US. “There was a lot of interest in them,” she says.
“It was kind of clear at that stage that there were people out there who’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and there wasn’t a whole lot of activities they felt they could do with their families.”
Harkin is currently exploring how Irish museums can build their Azure network with other European institutions.
Dementia-friendly spaces are increasingly important. “The population of people living with dementia is increasing,” she says. “And they’ve longer and healthier lives to live with a diagnosis.”
IMMA’s next Azure tour starts at 11am on Thursday 9 March, and there are two more scheduled for April and May. The tours are free of charge and visitors can book ahead or just drop in before they are scheduled.