Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Not Universally Accessible

We just got some feedback on the Christmas program here at the museum, it is feedback that I have heard before, on an issue that I have struggled with for many years: universal access for those of all levels of mobility. As a historic site, one must travel the roads and paths to get to the historic buildings, all of which are entered by going up stairs. We have retro-fitted some buildings with ramps, but entrances are not the only problems: getting around inside the buildings can be tough, and just getting to the buildings from the visitor center can be a challenge.

The busiest day of this year’s Christmas program was also the most problematic in terms of visitors navigating our site. The weekend before we had received a foot and a half of snow, then on Tuesday we got another 8 inches. All that had been cleared off the paths, but Friday and Saturday were warm and the light mist had been melting the snow all day. Since it was fairly cold, the ground was mostly frozen, forcing the snow melt on to our nicely shoveled paths and either re-freezing in to ice slicks, or mixing with just enough thawed ground to cause massive mud puddles. The grounds were totally a mess. I wore my rubber boots and muddled through, but those visitors who had dressed up in fancy shoes, or had mobility issues were having trouble on the grounds.

What could we do about this particular situation? We were certainly salting and sanding the icy patches, pushing back the snow, but even with a dedicated grounds crew there was not a lot we could do about the mud puddles. The water was not being absorbed into the frozen ground, and in order to soak up all that water we would have needed to invest in a couple tons of sand or gravel, or possibly several industrial vacuum cleaners. Do they make vacuum cleaners that suck up mud puddles?

So short term we could not do anything about the rough walking conditions, but that does not mean we can not improve for the future. So what are some of the long term solutions? The easiest and most cost effective solution to weather conditions on roads is to pave them: wooden walkways, cobblestones, concrete, asphalt. All of these would significantly reduce the mobility issues of our modern visitors. However, we are a historic site and none of those methods of paving can be documented for the time when most of our houses were built, which is the late 1700s early 1800s. At that time the roads were dirt, so that is what we have: dirt. By having piles of snow and mud puddles in December we are giving visitors a taste of winter in times past, and all the limits that go with it.

So yes, a number of elderly visitors and those with mobility issues do have trouble navigating our grounds in bad weather, even if nothing is falling from the sky at the moment that they come through. From a modern perspective that is totally unfair. I think universal access is an incredibly worthy goal and I do try, in my own little way, to work towards universal access for people of all abilities. But I am also a historian and can tell you, folks with disabilities did not really get to enjoy the “good old days.” Aside from the stigma a differently-abled person had to endure, in the time before electricity there were no elevators, no electric wheel chairs; heck, all those muddy paths were dark and even more treacherous before the cheap modern light bulb. What happened when older folks were no longer able to walk all that well? They certainly did not expect to go out with the grandkids to a nine-acre site in the middle of the winter and expect to walk around for several hours. But just because they were excluded in the past does not give us permission to exclude people today. BUT we don’t want to give up on presenting history, that is what we do!

I know there are people out there in the museum world doing wonderful work on universal access, but I have found very little of it on historic settings. If a reader has any insight, please share. I’d love to put more brains to work on this.


  1. I must say I'm torn on this issue. Although I'm not against some non-historical improvements of things like: limited boardwalks, brick paving or ramps on back/alternate entrances, much past that the point of having a historical space starts to get eroded. To my mind, part of the reason to go to a historical museum is to learn about and experience life as the original inhabitants knew it. Yes, that means walking/slipping on icy, muddy roads walkways, smelling horse and cow manure, and realizing "room temperature" wasn't 68 deg during the winter. And yes, that means not everyone will be able to participate in the experience.

  2. This is a critical issue: how to satisfy two conflicting goals, authenticity and access.
    I think you might want to work with a landscape architect or planner who can look at the contours and drainage of your site. Maybe re-laying your paths with different beds or layers underneath would help; maybe you need a well-placed (hidden?) drainage ditch alongside the paths.

    For immediate use, and on a scale that doesn't involve backhoes, grants, pemits and hardhats, I have seen some water-sucking wonders of late (ride-on power wet vacs that vacuum water out of carpets!).

    Grainger has a PDF catalog of Dayton vacuums: http://www.grainger.com/tps/cleaning_dayton_industrial_commercial_wet_dry_vacuums.pdf though the whine is non-period.

    For a period solution, what about straw in the puddles? You probably do this already, but it's always good to update your website/blog/FB pages to reflect current ground conditions (a picture helps) and add a note that "sturdy walking shoes are strongly encouraged." Places like Longwood Garden and other arboreta must deal with this-- you might try asking a botanical site open to the public. I think it's an issue at Van Cortland house; maybe they have good ideas, too.

    Sorry about the length...I spend a lot of time on facilities at work.