an A-typical visit to the museum
Last weekend at the highly frequented Louvre Museum, Persil and Katoushka a.k.a. the Lampion Sisters greeted families in an oasis of calm. The quiet space in the group reception area, accueil des groupes, is part of an ongoing renovation reserved for tours, conferences and workshops. Young (and some not so young) visitors with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) as well as their siblings and parents gathered for one of three sensory-inclusive autism-friendly events during the 2020 edition of Accessibility Week.
Relax! Who said you can’t clown around in front of a masterpiece?
Les Soeurs Lampions are not really sisters but a clown/mime duo composed of an occupational therapist, Catherine Tharreau, who is also a mime and actress Jenni Cat who plays the clown. The pair began performing for non-verbal neurodiverse audiences ten years ago using an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) method called Makaton. It was their first time guiding a visit in the Louvre and for many of the spectators it was the first visit to an art museum as a family.
One week prior to the event, each family received a pre-visit social guide from the Louvre. Social stories were created by an American teacher, Carol Gray, in 1990 to help her autistic students with social interaction. They are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity. Derivatives of social stories (social narratives, social guides) are now being used by cultural institutions to prepare individuals with autism spectrum conditions for general public events. Translated to scénario social in French they inform individuals on what to expect. The event took place in the Cour Marly au Musée du Louvre in Paris. Photographs of the six main sculptures that would be viewed were captioned with Makaton symbols in another document to further prepare visitors.
Makaton combines symbols, hand gestures and speech in spoken word order. The signing is different from sign language used by the deaf community. It is designed for people who can hear but are non-verbal or whose speech is unclear. Using symbols helps people who have limited speech and those who cannot, or prefer not to sign. Makaton originated in the UK and was adapted for France by AAD Makaton. I am not aware of how many people in the French autism community use this method as opposed to other ACC methods such as PECS. My adult son has never had any experience with Makaton but that did not stop him from enjoying this visit and engaging with Persil and Katoushka as well as the group.
Non-verbal doesn’t mean I have nothing to say,
it means you have to listen with more than your ears
Visibly at ease, the Soeurs Lampions welcomed each person on a first name basis setting the tone for a relaxed atmosphere. We were invited into one of the rooms that serves for such occasions and a short multi-sensory presentation began. At once poetic and theatrical, the duo awakened our senses to inform our journey to the mythological world of Olympian gods whom the marble statues depict. Before embarking on our literal journey from the room to the Cour Marly they also explained that the sculptures were originally in the Chateau de Marly gardens during the reign of King Louis XIV. Rather than a lesson in art history, it was more like setting the stage for what we were about to see.
Moving from one space in the vast Louvre museum to another can be tricky even without the weekend crowds. Persil led the way with a very large blue flag that later served as a visual prop in the Cour Marly. In front of the statues, they engaged each individual by appealing to our senses. Various scents and sounds evoked certain aspects of the statues and elicited spontaneous responses. While Persil played an instrument to call attention to the birds in a sculpture, my son unexpectedly started singing. She approached him swaying in rhythm to the song and a duet was improvised. This was just one of the many touching moments as the Soeurs Lampions reached out in a way that the spectators were individual participants in a collective experience.
It was an hour of pure pleasure shared as evidenced by the smiles and laughs as well as the thoughtful comments by the families present. The positive feedback was confirmed by museum professionals, testimony at the round table discussions during Accessibility Week and on social media. To leave comments or keep apprised of future relaxed performances/sensory and autism-friendly cultural events follow Frog & Ted and Les Soeurs Lampions. My son is a man of few words but Persil agreed to this selfie proof that a picture and a gesture are worth a thousand words.