How does Accessibilty Fit into Heritage?

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There are a lot of expectations that tourists have while visiting heritage sites. While it is common for those who manage the sites to invest hundreds into creating engaging and accurate representations for their visitors, they often forget about creating a space accessible to all of its visitors. While I believe that many spaces are capable of managing an accessible space, there are some cases which make it difficult. After a recent visit to Dundurn Castle, I would like to use it as a case study to highlight the challenges of accessibility in heritage.

Dundurn castle, located in Hamilton, Ontario, and has had a key impact on the identity of the city. The castle has stood at its current size since 1835, when Sir Allan McNab owned the estate with his family. Its impressive size continues to stun people who pass through, as it still holds the elegant charm it once did in the past. After a guided tour of the site, visitors are able to gain an appreciation for not only local history, but also the work which cultural historians have put into maintaining the site to its highest point of preservation, from hand painting the marbled walls, to the small toys of the children who grew up there.

While visiting Dundurn castle proved to be an extravagant guided tour of history, its unfortunate downfalls as a historic site lie within its accessibility issues for the public. While maintaining the heritage left on site, the ability to access the building has become an issue. The set-up of tour uses steep and uneven steps, poor lighting, and extremely small passages that even able-bodied individuals struggle to move through. Those with poor vision, or any form of disability which may require assistance to mobility will most likely be unable to access the site. Although many of the visitors whom tour may not recognize this, it becomes almost ironic considering Sir Allan McNab ended up suffering from Gout, and was confined to a wheelchair for part of his life.

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The debate lies within how much of history should be changed for accommodation. Over the years, 3 million dollars have been spent on maintenance and preservation of the original assets within the home. In staying true to the authenticity of the site they have presented a pure and realistic image of life in the castle. It calls to question if it is truly ethical to alter the representation with modern ideas of accessibility? As an advocate for equal accessibility, this question proves a challenge to answer. In some cases, the ability to make accessible additions does not drastically change historic grounds, and can be quite easy to build into the makeup of the site. In this case, the building would have to be heavily renovated to become completely accessible to those with some types of physical limitation. There would need to be the addition of elevators, wider halls, and ramps throughout the building. This means high construction costs, maintenance precautions, and threat to the original structure of the building, the latter being the most difficult seeing the age of the building.

In the case of Dundurn castle, I believe that it is possible to find solutions to the problem. In order to bypass any undue hardship, the site needs to provide some form of compensation for fair participation. This means that those who run the site may be able to create accessible tours, where tours could be made accessible to those with physical limitations by allowing wheelchair ramps to the main floor, or with portable lighting for those with visual limitations. This could mean creating a secondary tour route that would be on an accommodating path, but could still be strategic in highlighting the history of the site. While it may not completely address all of the accessibility problems on site, it presents a simple solution to give everyone an opportunity to participate in the history of the building.

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