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.

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Virtual Museum Tour


Hope: Collaboration and the Preservation of Moriori Culture

“The case study research has given us hope too in other ways-hope that our trees and living tree carvings can be saved; and hope that the process of engagement and collective decision making is the best course of action.” (Moriori Cultural Database, Simon Fraser University).

Chatham Islands Map

Map of the Chatham Islands, New Zealand

By: Elizabeth Carmichael and James Saunders

The Moriori are an indigenous group located on the Chatham Islands of New Zealand. Their cultural history, heritage, and language have not been passed down since the 1830s except through limited archives and memories of elder community members. In response to this problem, co-developers: Susan Thorpe, Maui Soloman and elder, Tom Lanauze, created a project in conjunction with Simon Fraser University in order to preserve Moriori material culture and to actively help teach the community about their heritage.

Their objectives include: establishing a Moriori knowledge database to preserve their traditions, ensuring the protection of their intellectual property, developing the Hokotehi Knowledge Recording Mentorship Programme (HKRMP) to help encourage participation in recording Moriori practices, exploring options for land use and resource management, and helping to educate modern day Moriori on their cultural heritage.

The project has taken on a community based approach that involves the cooperation and consultation with researchers and Moriori elders. This bi-cultural approach blends together archaeological practice and methods with elder knowledge. In addition, a unique approach taken by this project is its emphasis on the digitization of recording information and Moriori artefacts. This approach has been particularly important in overcoming barriers found in the isolated community while at the same time being cost effective and inclusive. Additionally, this approach has influenced the methodology of the project including the use of video cameras to record fieldwork which allows for high levels of participation and community inclusiveness. Digital workshops have been developed to educate participants on this method to encourage further participation and collaboration between community members and researchers. This method is particularly important because it brings Moriori values to solve both archaeological problems with artefact and site preservation, and ecological challenges such as protecting rakau momori (carved living trees) in a sacred grove. This project also ensures that Moriori artefacts are stored in Te Papa, a museum curated in part by collection managers and conservators in collaboration with the Moriori community. Thus, this initiative makes the artefacts more accessible to the community.

Moriori Database

Moriori descendant with a rakau momori (photo from IPinCH).

The project values this collaborative element because they want to share and preserve the cultural heritage of the Moriori people. This will allow them to gain a better insight into their culture and help to distinguish the Moriori from the Maori in academic settings. The aspiration of this project is to teach the modern generation about their cultural heritage and increase their knowledge of their culture. This project is significant because it shows how it is possible and valuable to work with the community, and that collaboration between researchers and community members can be successful. It also highlights an important trend in the effectiveness of digitizing archaeology in order to make it more accessible and to help with preservation.

In relation to other archaeological practices, this project is different because it did not start with research questions.  Instead, the research questions were made along the way. In comparison to other archaeologically practices, it was fairly easy to get the community involved because this archaeological work was aligned with the goals of the community. The project also puts the Moriori in control of the artefacts instead of the state. Additionally, the project does their archaeological work ethically by following a mandatory protocol set forth by Simon Fraser University which made use of required consent forms. These forms notified each interviewee the objectives of the project and ensured the willing participation of community members. The rights and dignity of these participants were particularly important to the developers of the project. In conclusion, this case study demonstrates the effectiveness and validity of community based research based upon collaboration and mutual respect.

For more information on the project please visit: