Luminarium Bristol Review – An Incredible Event Marred by Lack of Access

Luminarium was an incredible, free art event, which was unfortunately marred by Bristol’s usual poor access arrangements for autistic people. In fact, it was a barrier after barrier experience from the get-go.

The event was billed as a ‘sensory experience of light and colour free to attend and open to all’. It was installed on College Green in front of City Hall for 12 days. A mix of pre-booked tickets, walk-up access and dedicated sessions for disabled people were all on offer. The large installation, designed by Architects of Air, is a huge tent, with winding corridors to walk through. It utilises natural light, large domes and a soundscape backdrop to create a genuinely tranquil and wondrous experience.

I opted to pre-book a ‘sensory-friendly session’. These sessions were designed for children and adults with sensory needs and their carers. These sessions had been designed ‘with assistance’ from Bristol Autism Support, an important and much-loved charity in the city supporting the autistic population. I highly doubt they were the arbiters of disaster in this instance.

Being a carer of two disabled children, one who requires a significant amount of adjustments and support to attend anything, it’s really important that things are properly planned and access arrangements by venues are available.

From the outset, it was very difficult to book the disabled sessions. Instead of being able to use the Eventbrite booking system available to the public, anyone wishing to book a disability session had to email the Bristol City Centre Bid office to reserve spaces. You had no idea which sessions were full, available and also added an additional layer of planning that can be hard for people with Neurodivergence like ADHD.

The office then sent back a Word document to fill in. This was incredibly annoying. I couldn’t do this on my phone and had to wait to use a PC. This meant by the time I could email in, sessions had filled up. I’m not entirely sure how each email was deemed to have come from a disabled family and why a separate Eventbrite link could not have been sent out instead of the Word booking form – I know will have put off families without access to suitable tech.

Eventually, the date available was Sunday 14 August at 3pm. The very last afternoon of the event.

I had absolutely no idea that during the final week of the run, the installation had experienced closures due to the extreme hot weather. This was a missed opportunity to warn those coming to Relaxed Sessions that changes to opening hours might occur. This is really important when you are running autism specific sessions for anything. An inability to deal with sudden changes and surprises can be a significant issue and barrier for many autistic people.

This is why it was deeply upsetting to discover on the very morning of our visit that the session might be closed. By utter chance, I saw on Twitter that Luminarium was closed from 12 – 5pm due to the hot weather. This is entirely understandable, nobody has issues with this. But not communicating it to people coming to the dedicated session was confusing and upsetting.

It was confusing because the only sensory session mentioned in the closure notice was a Relaxed Session from 11.15 – 12pm. As our tickets were at 3pm, I couldn’t understand what had happened to this session because it wasn’t mentioned at all. Surely it would have been? It would later transpire that others with the 3pm ticket had been contacted to tell them to come to the earlier session.

What made the situation even worse was knowing that any minute, an additional carer supporting my second child was about to pay over a fiver to get a bus to come and help. I had absolutely no idea what was going on and I had no wish for anyone to waste a not insignificant bus fare on a waste of time.

After taking to Twitter, the usually reliable Bristol Light, got back promptly to say that everyone affected by the change had been sent an email. Except I had never received one. I went back through my email account at a forensic level to make sure I hadn’t missed it, but it definitely never came.

Eventually, Bristol Light said it would be fine to come along at 5pm when it re-opened and use our pre-booked tickets to come in the fast-track queue.

After a number of meltdowns from everyone and shuffling things around we came along for the 5pm session. So things worked out OK in the end then?

Well no actually. The queues at this point were already building with people holding pre-booked tickets as well as optimistic hopefuls without them.

Queuing is another big issue for one of my children and another significant barrier for many autistic people. I mean, we could have had help to support us with through his Education Health Care Plan. But he’s barely been in education for the last four years to access the necessary support. That’s Bristol for you.

We waited at the disabled access point which was away from the main queue ever hopeful that when the public were granted access someone would come over.

They did not. I had to go and ask someone to let us in. Whilst they did come over and do this, what I was not aware of was that a map was being handed out to people coming in the main entrance. We did not get this meaning the experience at times felt like wandering around the inside of a bouncy castle with no idea about what was going on or where. But it gets even better again.

Prior to entry, a person on the door did a short speech about what Luminarium is. Perfect. Except she told us all that we could stay for as long as we liked. In the sweltering conditions, I anticipated that we wouldn’t stay a great deal of time. Unfortunately, my son absolutely loved the experience. When you’re inside, it is a really lovely and calming place, even at capacity. In his head he planned out his time, what he wanted to do and how long he was going to do it – because we could ‘stay as long as you like’.

Except, we couldn’t stay as long as you liked. It’s entirely understandable that there were a large number of people waiting outside wanting to come in. But what you don’t do is tell an autistic people with limited capability to regulate, who had already missed his 45 minute Relaxed Session due to a mistake somewhere along the line, that he can stay as long as you like, then expect them to leave once they had spent ten minutes in the experience.

So a big thanks for triggering a massive meltdown that meant we couldn’t leave College Green for thirty minutes after we had exited and rumbled on until about 12.30am today.

We were literally all herded out of the experience. And it gets better again. In the shoe area we were told to put shoes on quickly and leave. I can’t remember now it was ‘hurry up’ or ‘quickly’ because unfortunately, none of us had left our disabilities at home and I couldn’t swear if it was one or the other that was used.

Overall, I would rate our visit as dire. It was difficult booking disabled sessions. It was ridiculous that ticket holders were not warned that closures might happen – we could have turned up at 3pm to find it closed and that would have been catastrophic. It was highly upsetting that we were not told our disability session was cancelled entirely. It was not on no one came over to the access point to let us in. It was annoying no one handed us a map. It was not on saying ‘stay as long as you like’ then making people leave if they had spent ten minutes inside. It was disgusting telling people to hurry up and put shoes on.

Luminarium was brilliant. It was fantastic bringing it to Bristol. We loved it. But the whole thing – as my son says – was ‘ruined’ by the completely inept access arrangements.

This wasn’t some benevolent event run by kindly church elders welcoming people into the community with fun entertainment and butterfly cakes. This was funded, likely through Cabinet agreement, as part of the drive to get people coming back into Bristol after Covid closures.

It was delivered by Bristol City Centre Business Improvement District in partnership with Arts Council England, Bristol City Council and West of England Combined Authority.

That it sat in the shadow of City Hall, triggered the kind of feeling that makes you want to egg a building. You know those moments when farmers drive into a city and spray a municipal building with manure? Because there is only so much you can take. Only so many times you can tolerate the fact that autistic people aren’t welcome in Bristol

Autistic people climb one insurmountable barrier after another every single day. And they are some of the people least able to do so.

To have a child crying at midnight because it’s finally dawned on them that autistic lives are not valued is not on. And the worst thing about it is he’s right. Being autistic in Bristol is an utter misery most days of the week.

I didn’t complain to anyone when we were there. I’m not really an I Want To Speak To The Manager person. But I am an Email To Point Out Cock-Ups person. My son told me not to bother though. He said why? Nothing changes. Nothing gets better. They’ll probably read it and forget it. Like a ‘we’re sorry we failed to meet your expectations on this occasion?’ I asked him, which thankfully made him laugh.

Bristol’s attitude to disabled people needs to buck right up. Because it’s not the lovely utopian paradise touted by Guardian articles or Balloons and Bridges PR. Ironically, we couldn’t even get to the Balloon Fiesta this week because of disability. That’s another story. But those who have the power to change these things and break down the barriers for marginalised communities rarely do.

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