Historical Reminiscents EP 15: Ableism and Accessibility in Public History

Woman walking up a flight of stairs. Text saying "Episode 15: Abelism and Accessibility in Public History. Historical Resminiscents Podcast"

New podcast episode! Some of the core facets behind public history practice are accessibility and community access. And preserved heritage should be accessible to all. In this week’s episode I talk about ableism in public history and heritage sites.  I discuss job descriptions that include lifting requirements, inaccessible heritage sites, and digital accessibility.

As a note, I do also realize the irony of talking about accessibility on a podcast for which transcripts are not available. I’m currently thinking about transcription options for the audio.

Mentioned in this episode:
Accessible Heritage Initiative
MUSEUM NOTE: Accessibility (PDF)

Download or listen now.

Photo credit: Nic Low on Unsplash



From Pulp and Paper to Community Hub

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Today’s prompt is: When did you feel beautiful this year? Why? Altered prompt: Discuss a beautiful heritage project or site from the past year.

St Marys Pulp and Paper Complex

One of the most inspiring revitalization projects in my community this past year has been the transformation of the St. Mary’s Paper Mill site. Initially known as the Sault Ste. Marie Pulp and Paper Company, which was built by Francis H. Clergue in 1895, the site remained operational until St. Mary’s Paper went bankrupt in 2011. A shot history of the pulp and paper industry in Sault Ste Marie can be found here.

Riversedge Developments purchased the site in 2012 and since that time the site has undergone significant revitalization. Much of the unique architecture found on the site has been preserved and there are plans for the site to be developed as a cultural and tourism hub.

The first phase of the project has seen the opening of the Mill Market in the former Board Mill Building, the former machine shop being developed as a concert venue, and the Algoma Conservatory of Music moving into the old administration building.

The site is being used for both public and private events and is slowly integrating itself into community life. It is great to see the revitalization of this industrial site and the preservation of such an important piece of heritage. Overall this is a great example of adaptive reuse of an industrial heritage site.

Chicago Architecture From the River

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the first in a series of posts about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there. 

During my fist full day in Chicago I spent part of the afternoon enjoying the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise.  The 90 minute boat tour featured a journey down the Chicago river and focused on the history and architecture of over 50 buildings in the area.  Some of my favourite buildings on the tour were the Marina City building, 35 East Wacker, and the Civic Opera House.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) which operates the tours is an organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting the architecture of the city.  The organization was founded in 1966 in an effort to save the Glessner House from demolition.  This initial initiative brought together Chicago residents from all walks of life and resulted in the founding of the CAF.  Today the organization has over 450 volunteer docents who run tours such as the river cruise. Last year 319,661 people participated in tours put on by CAF.

Marina City Building

The CAF volunteer docents undergo a comprehensive training program and it shows.  Volunteer docents are required to complete a five week class on the fundamentals of Chicago architecture and a four week class specific to the tour they will be running.  More details about the training can be seen here.  The docent of my particular tour was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and conducted the tour with great professionalism.

Overall the tour was a great mixture of history, architecture, and local anecdotes.  The docent covered the basics of architectural style, talked about influential architects in the city, provided detailed accounts of numerous buildings, and filled in the tour with the history of Chicago. I came away from the tour feeling as though I learned a lot but also had an opportunity to simply enjoy the sights.  Even if you don’t know a ton about built heritage or architecture the tour is engaging and designed to be accessible to the general public. 

Photo credit: Andrew MacKay

Architecture and Preservation at Open House Dublin

Tyrone House

My last day in Ireland was spent in Dublin. By happenstance Open House Dublin (OHD) was occurring that day and I was able to check out some local built heritage sites.  Open House Dublin is very similar to Doors Open days which allow people to tour buildings which are often closed to the general public and learn about the history of these sites. 

Open House Dublin is free and is sponsored by the Irish Architecture Foundation (IAF).  The 2013  OHD event featured 100 buildings and many of the sites featured tours by an architect or someone very familiar with the building’s architecture.  The IAF is a non-profit organization aimed at promoting the value of architecture to the general public.  Open House tours which explain the significance of local built heritage is a great way
to interest people in architecture and local heritage.

One of the sites I visited as part of OHD was the Tyrone House which is currently home to the

In Tyrone House Courtyard

Department of Education and Skills.  The building was the first stand alone stone house in Dublin.  A number of the original stonework, plaster ceilings, marble fireplaces, and mahogany woodwork is still in the structure.  The tour guide did an excellent job of contextualizing the building and speaking to the numerous modifications that had occurred in the building since it’s construction in the mid 1700s.

The Tyrone House site also a number of interesting modern art features and additional buildings that were not included in the tour.  The Department of Education and Skills built a replica of the Tyrone building on the site — possibly to create a symmetrical appearance of the grounds — this newer building was not included in the tour but the guide to speak to the aims of the Department to maintain the heritage of the site.

Charlemont House

I also visited the former Charlemont House.  This building dates from 1775 and is currently home to the Dublin City Gallery which is a museum for modern art.  The Charlemont House is limestone faced building  set back from the street.  The main floor of the House has been renovated extensively to accommodate a gallery space.  The upstairs portions of the building apparently retain some of the original fireplaces and detailing however because of a storage issue that area wasn’t accessible during my visit.  The tour at this site was fairly brief and not nearly as detailed as the one at Tyrone House.

Overall my experience during the Open House Dublin event was a positive one.  The guides were friendly and knowledgeable about their respective sites and it was an interesting opportunity to explore parts of Dublin that aren’t tourist destinations and that aren’t always open to the public. 

Old Buildings and Equipment at the Kilbeggan Distillery

Water wheel

The most direct drive from Galway to Dublin takes you along a major motorway, which is pretty devoid of scenery.  But there are a number of small towns along the way if you decide you want to explore.  I ended up stopping at the Kilbeggan Distillery.  The Distillery offers both guided tours and self guided walking tours of the site.  I did a self guided tour and they provide you with an excellent guide that walks you through various well labelled buildings.

The Distillery located on the Kilbeggan river opened in 1757

Copper Pot Still

production on the site continued until 1957 when economic reasons forced the closure of the distillery.  Twenty five years after the closure the local community took over the site and turned it into a museum. The year 2007 marked the 250th anniversary since the establishment of the first Kilbeggan Distillery, in the same year whiskey production resumed on the site. By 2010 the site was working as a fully operational distillery once again. 

I loved the fact that this site combines a museum, historical buildings, and old distillery equipment with a modern day operation.  The site features a functioning water wheel and steam engine.  The old pot stills, fermentation vats, and processing rooms are also still on the site.  The interior of the structure is primarily wooden and the whole inside of the building had a creaky feel that reminded me of a barn.  Considering the fact that portions of the space were used for storage of grains I suppose the barn feeling makes sense.

Working portion of distillery

The self guided tour concludes with a visit to portions of the working distillery.  It was interesting to be able to compare the old equipment with the modern machinery currently being used — the equipment looks very similar but is often made out of slightly different materials.  As part of the tour you also receive a complementary glass of whiskey and a small whiskey glass to take home. The variety of heritage features on this site, combined with the fact that the site wasn’t very busy made the Kilbeggan Distillery an enjoyable experience.

Exploring Galway on Foot

The city of Galway is very walkable.  It is a compact city with lots of walking paths and pedestrian only area.  A few of the places I explored on foot included the Eglington Canal, the Spanish Arch, and the Salthill promenade.  

The canal is bordered by paths which take you through residential areas, parks, and eventually down to the quay.  The quay includes a large outdoor sports area, walking paths right on the coast, and lots of green space.  The quay area is actually a re-greened space that was previously used as a garbage dump, so it was interesting to see the area’s new life and to find so much open space inside the city.

The Spanish Arch is located just outside of the Galway City Museum and is on the left bank of the
Corrib river.  The Arch was built in 1584 and is a portion of the city walls which once enclosed Galway.

Similar to the Spanish Arch, Eyre Square is home to the Browne Door.  Which is the original door from the Browne family homestead in Galway.  The door has been relocated to the Square from Abbeygate street.  Both the Arch and the door have a disembodied feel to them, they are portions of much larger structures and give a brief glimpse into Galway’s past.

The Salthill promenade runs alongside Galway Bay and is a well maintained walking route.  It was
pouring rain for portions of my walk along the promenade, but the view of the bay and seeing parts of Galway that are less tourist and student centric was well worth a bit of rain. 

Seaside Heritage on the Dingle Peninsula

Dunbeg Fort

The Dingle Peninsula was one of my favourite areas of Ireland.  The sea side town was homey and the surrounding country size was awe inspiring.  The Slea Head drive in particular offered some great views of the the coastline, natural heritage, and a handful of built heritage sites. 

The Dunbeg Fort was the first place we stopped on the Slea Head route. The Fort overlooks Dingle Bay and is located on a rock promontory that has eroded substantially over the years.  The view alone is well worth the admission price to the Fort.  The Fort structure is dry stacked rock and only a small portion of the original Fort still exists, portions of it were lost to erosion. The date of the Fort is contested with some dating the structure from the Iron Age, 500 BC, or 800 AD. 

View at Dunbeg

The Dunbeg site also includes a small visitors centre.  The Centre features an audio-visual presentation room where there is a ten minute video describing the history of the area, the archeological studies that have been done at Dunbeg, and the type of building material used in the Fort.

A short distance away from the Dunbeg Fort there are a grouping of clocháns, also known as beehive huts.  There is little signage around the huts but visitors are given a brief information handout when they arrive that dates the site around 1000 AD.  The rounded roofs of the huts reminded me of igloo construction, particular when viewed from inside.  The few clocháns on the site are all relatively small in height and size but were neat to explore.  The site is located on the side of a hill and the view provides a different vantage point of the area. 

Beehive Hut

Following the Dunbeg Fort and beehive huts the road continues towards the Blasket Island and nearby beach.  The Blasket Island is only 2 km away from shore, but in the 1950s the Irish government had the island evacuated and the 170 residents were relocated to the mainland.  The reasoning being that the island was deemed unsafe for habitation.  The Blascaoid Centre located on the main Dingle Peninsula is dedicated to the heritage of the island and its inhabitants. 

The Slea Head drive was a great mixture of country side, rugged coast line, and heritage sites.  You could easily spend an entire afternoon or day enjoying the sites along the route and in my mind the drive was fare more enjoyable than the more well known Ring of Kerry. 

Ring Forts and Castles in a Farmer’s Field

The Ring of Kerry was one of the low points of the trip for me.  Yes, the landscape was beautiful but it was a lot of driving and there were definitively other natural heritage sites that I thought more impressive.  However, part way through the Ring of Kerry I visited the Ballycarbery Castle and Ring Fort located near Cahersiveen.  Both of these sites were located in farmers’ fields and were amazing ruins to explore.

Ballycarbery Castle is thought to have been built in 1560s by the MacCarthy family. Portions of the castle have fallen down, walls are missing, many of the staircases drop off in the middle of nowhere, and the much of the stone is covered by vines.  The Castle is located right by the sea and for the more adventurous it is possible to climb up to the second story and explore some of the small rooms.  This was probably one of the most rustic sites I visited and because of the out of the way location there were no other visitors while my partner and I were exploring the site.  There are some small directional signs pointing the way to the Castle, however the actual site doesn’t have any signage.  It would have been nice to be able to learn more about the history of the site and the building. 

A short distance from the castle is the Cahergal Ring Fort. Like the name suggests the Fort is circular in nature and the interior of the Fort looks like a tiered amphitheater. The rock that makes up the Fort is all dry stacked without any visible adhesive and given the age of the structure it is only natural that in some spots the rocks have started to come loose.  During my visit, one section of the Fort was blocked off because of preservation efforts to the structure. It is possible to climb up the circular fort to the top of ‘Ring’ and view the surrounding countryside — lots of sheep and some cows. Similar to the Ballycarbery Castle there was no signage at the Ring Fort and the site was unstaffed. 

The town of Cahersiveen was fairly unremarkable but a five minute drive off the main road towards the beach was well worth it.  The Castle and Ring Fort and great examples of the excessive number of heritage sites, old castles, and stunning views in Ireland.  The sites are in such an abundance that many can be found in the middle of nowhere, with little signage and fanfare.

Military History and Stunning Sea Views at Charles Fort

Kinsale, County Cork was one of my favourite spots in Ireland.  The quaint seaside town had small narrow streets, delicious sea food, and a number of local attractions.  Charles Fort located 2km outside of Kinsale is a 17th century star shaped fort.  The distance to the Fort is walkable from the town and the views on the hilly walk of the harbour below are fantastic.

Charles Fort was built by William Robinson, the same architect who built the Royal Hospital Kilmainham that I visited while in Dublin. Designed in the shape of a star, Charles Fort was built to be highly defensible from the water and resistant to cannon fire. However, because of budget reasons the fort was not completed according to Robinson’s original design and the land facing side of the fort was not as defensible as originally planned.  A land based siege during the Williamte War (1689-1691) was successful in defeating the meager land side defense and highlights the flawed nature of Charles Fort.

Mosaic map of Charles Fort

Given how small Kinsale is I was surprised by how busy Charles Fort was during my visit.  There were a couple tour buses and a school group at the site when I arrived.  The site is expansive with layers of fortification to explore, so even though the site was busy there was still lots of room to walk around and not feel crowded. 

There is an exhibition space in what was once barracks that describes the history the area, the building of the fort and the main battles faced by the fort.   The space contains artifacts, text, and audio-visual material that highlight the different occupants of the Fort and the experience of the soldiers who stayed in the Fort. There is also a small photo exhibition in the former power magazine which shows how the power magazine operated and other aspects of military life at the Fort. 

One of the more visual features of Charles Fort is the ‘blast wall’ construction that exists around the perimeter of the Fort.  The thick exterior walls of the fort are surrounded by sections of earth, which are followed by another interior wall.  The sections of earth were included as a means of making the fort stronger in the face of cannonballs.  The earth would absorb the shock of cannonball fire and not crumble in the way that stonewalls typically do.  This practical measure resulted in the present day advantage of an area of land which visitors can walk on and see right to the edge of the fort and into the sea. 

This site wasn’t even on my radar until the owner of the B&B I was staying at recommended a visit to the Fort.  I’m glad I listened to her suggestion as the views from the fort, the history of the site, and the expansive remaining battlements make Charles Fort well worth the visit.  

Gardens and Sculptures at Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone are some of the most well known Irish landmarks.  The Castle was built in 1446 by Dermot McCarthy, the King of Munster and was one of the more rustic ‘castles’ I saw on my trip.

The staircase up to the top of the Castle was twisty, cramped and not for those who are claustrophobic or afraid of heights.  There’s a rope for visitors to hold on to as they transverse the curvy, narrow stairs but otherwise there isn’t much in the way of support during the climb.   As the stairwell winds upward there are a number of small rooms which visitors can explore.

The bedrooms, kitchen, and dinning room are only identifiable by the signage as
nothing but rock remains in the space.  The views from the top of the castle were pretty remarkable as the Castle overlooked the entire Blarney estate, including the Blarney House and gardens.

I enjoyed the grounds of the Blarney Castle more than the Castle itself.  There were a number of different styles of gardens on the grounds to explore.  The well manicured lawns were contrasted with the wild Rock Close and bog gardens.  The Rock Close area provided a peaceful walk through the woods on a trail lined with modern art sculptures.

In the Rock Close

The Poison Garden and the Irish Garden had added educational elements which aimed to teach visitors about a range of plants.  The poison garden was an interesting concept, it contains poisonous plants from around the world.  The plants are well labeled and describe the nature of the poison, the historical uses of the plants, and how the plants are used today.  The garden is well signed to warn visitors and parents of small children of potential dangers (eg. don’t touch or eat the plants).  The Irish Garden was relatively small but provided an opportunity to see and learn about some of the area’s native plants.

The expansive grounds at the Castle are what made the visit to Blarney worthwhile for me.  The Castle was a fun touristy experience and had a rustic old feel to it.  But, I could have spent hours wondering around the gardens and grounds as there were so many walking paths, sculptures, and variety of flora to see.

Photographs by Andrew MacKay