On Monday 28 November, M&G NSW co-hosted an event with Accessible Arts exploring the requirements and challenges facing audiences and arts professionals with disabilities in heritage buildings. We were fortunate enough to have a range of speakers including disability specialists, architects and people working in heritage buildings operating as museums and galleries. A number of powerpoint presentations from the day have been uploaded to our website and are available through M&G NSW Resources. Speakers included:
Vince Sicari, Heritage Branch NSW, Office of Environment and Heritage
Vince is the Manager of the Conservation Team at the Heritage Branch and gave a great outline of how a building gets to be heritage listed, the implications of listing, the use of interim heritage orders, the relationship between the Heritage Branch and its guiding body, the Heritage Council and the sort of advice that the Heritage Branch can provide, through its Fire, Access and Services Advisory Panel (FSAP) Vince also mentioned two documents the Heritage Branch have produced New Uses for Heritage Places (which outlines the process of adapting a heritage building for a new use, including access for people with disabilities) and Design in Context (which outlines the process of building new structures within a heritage precinct).
Eric Martin, Eric Martin & Associates- Architects
Eric is an architect with over 35 years experience developing heritage buildings for disability access. Eric provided an outline of the various pieces of legislation that impact on the provision of disability access to heritage buildings. In particular the
Disability (Access to Premises - Buildings) Standards 2010 which came into effect in May 2011. Eric also mentioned the newly formed NSW Building Professionals Board's newly formed Access Advisory Committee, who are able to provide advice related to the Disability Standards including decisions about unjustifiable hardship. Eric outlined the steps undertaken in planning for disability access to heritage buildings as follows:
- Review the significance of the place and identify the elements of greatest significance
- Undertake an Access Audit to determine existing and required levels of accessibility.
- Evaluate access options within a conservation context. This process includes consultation with authorities and approval of the proposed action.
- Prepare the access policy or action plan.
- Implement the necessary action.
- Access to building entry
- Access through public entrances
- Circulation throughout the main building
- Access to other floors
- Other facilities
Mark runs a consultancy focusing on disability access. Mark outlined mobility issues including: Lower reach ranges, lower viewing/sight lines, accessible amenities and steps. He spoke of the need for ramps, lifts and also appropriate handrails. Mark also highlighted approaches to improve access for people with vision and hearing impairment including: the use of tactile surfaces, Braille/raised print, large format labels/guides, audio description, increased general light levels, assistive listening systems (such as hearing loops), Auslan interpreters, captioning and printed material.
Mark encouraged people to consider not just access to the building but the entire visitor experience including booking a ticket, finding out information prior to a visit, signage about access for people with disabilities, where to park/drop people off, availability of seating/rest points, sightlines (which will be lower for people in wheelchairs), access to interactive exhibitions, the location of accessible toilets and staff/volunteer awareness.
Mark pointed out that the low light levels in exhibitions can make it very difficult for people with vision impairment to find their way around and suggested that higher general lighting or lights with timers could help with this. Similarly he suggested that strip lights on stairs could be of assistance. He also pointed out that exhibition furniture hanging from the ceiling or sticking out into pathways could also be a hazard, as well as temporary barriers in the form of cables, ropes or retractable belts. Mark provided links to some recent papers from the USA's National Center on Accessibility who have recently written papers on the museum experiences of people who are blind and vision impaired including
Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness:
Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness:
Research on Effective Use of Tactile Exhibits with Touch Activated Audio Description for the Blind and Low Vision Audience
The afternoon gave us an opportunity to hear from a range of people working in heritage buildings, mostly being used as museums and galleries which led to some really interesting discussions between the speakers and audience. Speakers explored approaches to improving access into buildings, virtual tours to fragile sites and approaches to improved access for people with vision and hearing impairment as well as the Deaf community. Speakers included:Mantej Singh Head of Western Sydney Portfolio, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
As Head of the Western Sydney Portfolio, Mantej is responsible for a range of properties including Rouse Hill, Elizabeth Farm and Meroogal. Historic Houses can be difficult to provide access into as many are being interpreted in the manner of their original use, (including homes, small shops and a farm) which provides challenges, in particular with upper floors. Rouse Hill is a point in case where the fragile nature of the upper floors prevents any visitor access. Instead, the Historic Houses Trust has developed a virtual tour which not only provides panoramic views of each room in the property but allows visitors to open drawers, cupboards etc. to explore contents that wouldn't be accessible to anyone on an actual tour. The full virtual tour is available on terminals at the Rouse Hill Visitors Centre and Caroline Simpson Library (at the Mint, Macquarie St). Five of the panoramas are available for viewing on the HHT's website.
Julie McKenzie, Associate Director, Tonkin Zulaika Greer Architects
As an architect, Julie has worked closely on the redevelopment of a number of heritage sites for arts purposes including museums, galleries and performing arts. Julie has worked with Mark Relf on a number of projects and spoke of the importance of seeing the potential of a site in a design sense and consulting widely to ensure good access. She spoke specifically about three projects that she has been involved in- Carriageworks the train workshops in Eveleigh that have been redeveloped into a dynamic performing arts venue; Casula Powerhouse in western Sydney, an old powerstation that has been redeveloped into a dynamic gallery and performing arts venue in several stages over a ten year period and the Paddington Reservoir which was being used as a carpark prior to being converted into a sunken public garden.
Joe Eisenberg, Cultural Director, Maitland Regional Art Gallery
Joe outlined the work involved in redeveloping an early twentieth century technical college into a twenty first century art gallery. As with Casula Powerhouse, the redevelopment of Maitland Regional Art Gallery was undertaken in stages and has included the introduction of a new building to link two existing buildings (and in doing so avoiding the use of steps between spaces), the installation of a lift to the upper level, inclusion of accessible toilets and a sensory garden. A ramp was included at the new entrance to the building, Joe reflected on the fact that most people use the entrance at the other side, which comes straight in from the carpark. He pointed out that this in many ways has become the main entrance to the building as more people arrive by car than other modes of transport.
Julie Baird, Deputy Director, Newcastle Museum
Julie pointed out that not all heritage buildings are created equal, particularly in terms of access. The museum had been located in a heritage listed brewery on seven levels, with a lift that could only fit one wheelchair. The Newcastle Museum reopened in August this year at a more accessible heritage site, a railways workshop beside Newcastle's Civic railway station. As the building was originally designed to move train carriages through it, it has large entrances, with most operations on a single level, which is in terms of access and the movement of collections around the site. There is no fixed furniture in the cafe or theatrette which allows both to be arranged according to visitor needs and the activities being undertaken. The museum inherited a number of chairs from council which have been placed throughout the public spaces (including the accessible toilet) as the need for rest spots had been identified during the museum's redevelopment.
Newcastle Museum Volunteer, Di Taylor, who uses a wheelchair, has been providing feedback to Museum staff about accessibility issues as they arise, particularly in terms of exhibitions where a couple of showcases had been set too high. Julie acknowledges that there are some accessibility issues that haven't been overcome, such as the need for collections in some spaces to be at least 1m from the ground in case of flood and the fact that the tram which visitors are invited to climb in and explore is not accessible for those with a physical disability.
The Museum's motivation to continue to improve access for all people into around the site is reflected int their recent work with Vision Australia. Following the arrival of temporary exhibition Living in a sensory world: stories from people with blindness and low vision the Museum has been collaborating with the Newcastle staff from Vision Australia to develop audio described tours and material that can be accessed through a DAISY reader (Digital Accessible Information System- an audio reader used by many people with vision impairment).
The seminar ended with a lively discussion between the audience and speakers about some of the challenges encountered when using heritage buildings as museums and galleries.