Dundurn Castle: Accessing and Authenticating Heritage

Dundurn Castle

In Hamilton, Ontario, probably one of the most important and popular heritage sites for Hamiltonians and tourists alike is Dundurn Castle. However, do not let its name, fancy porticos and columns fool you! This is not actually a castle (*gasp*) and the tour guides are very upfront with this miscommunication.

Formerly the site of a fortified military escarpment during the War of 1812, Sir Allen Napier MacNab, a businessman and Premier of the United Canadas between 1854 and 1856, built the castle in 1835. It was designed by architect, Robert Wetherall, who combined classical and Italianate villa styles, and features French windows, two towers and a portico added in the 1850s. The castle has since been purchased by the City of Hamilton, and continues to be restored and renovated to 1855 when MacNab was at the height of his career.

As work continues to be done on Dundurn Castle, important issues such as accessibility and authenticity begin to emerge and conflict with future design plans. Having recently visited the castle myself, I’d like to address some of these challenges and open discussion on the authenticity versus accessibility debate.

Dundurn CastleDundurn Castle

First of all, it is important to note that this site appeals to a wide audience and makes it suitable for all ages. Particularly, the Hamilton Military Museum included in the castle’s admission price, offers a whole children’s section where they can pretend to be soldiers from 1812 and appeals to more hands on learning. The castle also offers activities for non-history buffs including historical cooking classes and gardening tours. So there is something for everyone! The castle is also open year round with tours every 20-30 minutes between 12 and 4pm, Tuesday to Sunday, making it very accessible to families and individuals with busy schedules.

Dundurn CastleDon’t feel you can make it during any of those times, or live far away and transportation costs are expensive? Fear not! There is a virtual tour of the grounds and the castle! The virtual tour is actually quite impressive as it takes you all over the property and through the rooms of the castle (it even goes through the military museum). It also lets you click on highlighted features within a room such as the many portraits or chandeliers to learn more information and get a better look. Each section/area/room also comes with a brief description similar to what you would hear on a guided tour. You can also listen to the description with the audio option. So though you might not be able to go in person, you can still enjoy the castle as if you were there on the tour. The only thing I would have liked to have seen is more language options for the audio and written descriptions in order to allow non-English speakers to be able to access the site.

The actual physical tour is quite good as well and you even get to try food made using historical cooking methods at the end. The shortbread is amazing! Additionally, the tour guides dress in period costumes and lead you through the house adding to its authentic feel. Overall, they were very good at answering any questions my group and I had including ones about broader historical themes. In an article by Jonathan Rix, Ticky Lowe and the Heritage Forum (2010) on increasing accessibility in heritage sites, they suggested that one of the ways to enhance site accessibility for individuals with various learning disabilities was to include guides who are engaging and build on their understandings. Costumes were also found to be helpful. Therefore, these tours could help provide access to many individuals with different disabilities.

Dundurn Castle

Nonetheless, the biggest challenge for accessibility at Dundurn Castle is probably its wheelchair accessibility. The website for the site is clear that the castle is only partially wheelchair accessible. This is evident with the narrow and uneven staircases leading to the basement and upper floors of the castle. In trying to make this more accessible to these individuals, issues of authenticity come into play. Do we potentially damage the original structure of the building in order to put in elevators or other accessibility options? Would these projects completely change the grounds? I believe with more research and consultation, Dundurn Castle could potentially find an effective solution and become more accessible to the public which should be a priority in future developments. Durdurn Castle is an important marker of Hamilton’s identity and heritage, should we not all be able to share it?

References Cited:

Rix, Jonathan, Ticky Lowe, and the Heritage Forum. (2010). Including people with learning difficulties in cultural and heritage sites. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(3):207-224. DOI: 10.1080/13527251003620743.

For More Information Please Visit: 

https://www.hamilton.ca/attractions/hamilton-civic-museums/dundurn-national-historic-site

Virtual Museum Tour

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