Yesterday I visited the David P J Ross Magna Carta vault at Lincoln Castle – the new vault intended to display Magna Carta in a fitting home as a UNESCO Memory of the World document.
I think that the building’s architects had been trammelled into a view of accessibility in which wheelchair access overrode everything else. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t disagree with level access. What I do disagree with is the lack of holistic oversight in which the blinkers came on and no other consideration seemed to have been taken.
You enter a circular vault at ground level from the castle’s prison in which you see two sets of stairs and a central lift taking you down to the Magna Carta and to the cinema below. Nice piece of design – level access doesn’t seem to be “special”, but is everyday and integrated into the design.
Except . . . on the back wall is a modern English translation of the Magna Carta, carved in stone. It’s called the “wall of words” in the visitor blurb. The sole translation and transcript of the entire thing in the entire building, making the original Latin of the document accessible in English. Can you read it in its entirety? No, because you have to look at it from either side of the lift shaft, which blocks your view of either the right or the left side of the carved translation. With so many lines of text too, it is easy to lose track when trotting from one side to the other to try and make it out. On the stairs, as they curve round the lift shaft, you have a chance to read the text but the shadow cast by the lift, which is opposite the door, makes it difficult, and, of course, when you are visiting on a busy day you cannot pause on the stairs. Then, when you are on the next level down, the text at the top is too high to comfortably read.
If you watch the slide show on the visitor blurb, picture 2 shows what I’m talking about. It was impossible to take a photo of the entire thing even for the press office, and you can see the shadow of the lift shaft. Surely this carving is a statement: “THIS is the significance and resonance of the document you are about to see, made accessible in modern English”. It matters. It mattered to me, someone with a knowledge of the language of the original and with palaeographic skills. How much more for visitors who don’t have this background and who want to commemorate their heritage.
Accessibility is about more than making buildings accessible to people with wheelchair mobility, it is all about an integrated concept of design. It really is. Translating the document into modern English ticks the box for intellectual access. Conceptually, too, the idea should have been successful – carving out the text is a nice illustration of the document’s enduring power. Making it visually inaccessible – for such a nice piece of carving too, which should have been a showcase feature of the building, is a terrible own goal. Someone should have spotted this at some point of the project, but, you see, people never see ‘access’ in holistic terms, they just think level access ticks all the boxes and that’s it. But what is the point if visitors cannot read the sole English translation of the most significant document in English history in its entirety?
There is no interpretation on the walls of the Magna Carta room itself. There are labels in each display case – but no transcripts, translation, or discussion of each manuscript’s interesting features: for example in the Lincoln manuscript it is possible to see the way the crinkles in the parchment reveal the spine and shoulders of the original animal whose skin it was made from (something I know from my own knowledge) or how long it took to write out, possibly around 8 hours – this I got out of Magna Carta, David Carpenter, Penguin, 2015).
So that’s one transcript dealt with. What about the other? Below the Magna Carta vault is the cinema level – a circular space with a semi-circular screen and a film putting the Magna Carta and subsequent documents in the context of their times. There were, of course, no subtitles on the film. Since intertitles of key dates were flashed up in the centre of the screen, the technology was there in the film for centrally-placed subtitles, which would probably have benefited many more people than deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors. In a circular space with hard walls, the sound was boomy and echoing and quite hard to decipher at times. Even a transcript would have been helpful and better than nothing, but none was available.
There was also nothing that I could see that made the Magna Carta accessible to visually impaired people, but again, that is a question of a holistic approach to access. A braille transcript would have been a good start, but I am sure that other approaches could have been taken, e.g. using the cinema space as an interpretive space instead, with the opportunity to display interpretation panels and expanded details of the text. A computer interactive display allowing you to zoom in would have been ideal, and an excellent opportunity to deliver another English translation.
The vault is a bare-bones approach to history in which we come away none the wiser.