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Milwaukee Public Museum Sensory Room Creates Space For All Visitors

Airports, NFL Beginning To Offer Sensory Rooms

Milwaukee Public Museum exterior
Mark Danielson (CC-BY-NC)

On the first floor of the Milwaukee Public Museum, beyond the rainforest and dinosaur bones, there is a Tyrannosaurus rex digging into the side of a Triceratops.

The diorama can be seen from several angles. The T. rex’s teeth are bloody, it’s victim’s stomach open. The exhibit is large and loud.

For some visitors, the sensory-rich display is too much to handle.

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“On our first floor we have several exhibits that are very immersive,” said Dawn Koceja, accessibility coordinator for the Milwaukee Public Museum. “Whenever you have an individual with a sensory challenge, who is in an unfamiliar place, and you add hundreds of people, it can enhance the experience.”

Milwaukee Public Museum accessibility coordinator Dawn Koceja talks with Autumn Sultan, 14, in the museum’s sensory room. Corrine Hess/WPR

In mid-October, the Milwaukee Public Museums became one of the first museums to offer people a calm place to retreat to when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

The nature-themed periwinkle room has been designed for visitors with various abilities and needs, Koceja said.

On a recent visit, Autumn Sultan stopped in with her mom, Elizabeth Milcarek. Autumn is 14 and has autism. She went on the museum’s website the morning of her visit and saw there was a sensory room.

“It is so cool,” she said. “It has a lot of toys in there … and you want to know something? (When) I grow up I want to have a lot of special needs kids of my own. I plan on having a team of my own called Autumn and the Special Needs Superstars.”

Milcarek said as a mother of a child with autism, she appreciates a room like this.

“It’s a nice place to escape a little bit,” she said.

The sensory room features different lighting, textures and stimulants including bubble tubes, adjustable lights, nature soundscapes, books and toys.

The Milwaukee Public Museum began focusing on various accessibility initiatives about four years ago. Koceja said with the museum serving 500,000 per year, and 1 in 5 people having a disability, creating a sensory room seemed like the right idea.

“Those are big numbers for us,” she said. “We recognize kids do get overwhelmed, they do have tantrums. Even you and I need a time to walk away. We really focused that this room will have a chance to break away and regroup.”

This football season, the Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars have all opened sensory rooms at their stadiums for people who need a calm place away from the game.

Airports across the country are opening sensory rooms as well, Koceja said.

The Building For Kids Children’s Museum in Appleton has a sensory space and on the third Sunday of the month hosts a lower sensory experience.

“It’s something that museums really need to think about more,” Koceja said.

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