The centenary of the death of New Zealand’s most famous writer, Katherine Mansfield, on 23 January 2023 will be an opportunity to focus on her creative legacy and make the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden in Wellington more welcoming to Deaf and disabled communities.
The two-storied house was built in the nineteenth century and is a Category 1 Historic Place in the inner-city suburb of Thorndon. Mansfield lived there with her family until she was five-years-old. Opened to the public in 1988, it offers an insight into nineteenth-century Wellington, and the life and writing of Mansfield.
Cherie Jacobson, its Director, took up the role just before the house was re-opened in September 2019 after major maintenance and an interior refresh. A few months later, COVID-19 arrived in New Zealand.
“Like everyone else, it’s been a roller-coaster two years,” Cherie says. “Before the pandemic, 40% of our visitors were international. Now, New Zealand visitors are our main income, along with school visits and workshops.”
Attending the Arts For All Wellington Network meetings
Cherie’s interest in accessibility started when she was a Programme Manager at BATS Theatre. “We had to move out while the Kent Terrace building was being earthquake-strengthened and our temporary venue was inaccessible. I remember thinking a lot about how we could make BATS more accessible and I started attending the Arts For All Wellington Network meetings.
“The meetings were a great way to hear what other arts organisations were doing in the accessibility space. Pascale Parenteau’s talk about the Royal New Zealand Ballet resonated with me. She said that she wasn’t an expert; that she just saw an opportunity and got stuck in.”
A strategic priority from 2020–2023 for the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society, which runs the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden, is “Connection”: i.e. connecting with new and existing audiences and communities. This includes improving the House’s accessibility although there are challenges because of its Category 1 Historic Place status.
There are no accessible toilets and visitors need to negotiate two lots of stairs: the steep steps into the entranceway of the house and the stairs up to the second floor.
“Satisfying both heritage and access requirements can be challenging and costly, and the potential for alterations to the building is limited,” Cherie says. “However, there’s definitely a number of things we can do to make the house more accessible.”
Stace Robertson, Access, Inclusion and Participation Advisor at Arts Access Aotearoa, applauds Cherie’s commitment to making the House more welcoming and accessible.
“However, the inaccessibility of heritage sites in New Zealand is a real concern and needs to be addressed so that everyone has equal access,” he says. “There are many examples of historic sites in the UK and Europe that have been made accessible in a way that’s sensitive to the buildings’ heritage.”
Developing a draft accessibility policy
Supported by Stace and Arts Access Aotearoa’s resources, Cherie and her colleague, Catherine Miller, the House Coordinator, developed a draft accessibility policy. It includes an analysis of the House’s accessibility issues, the current situation and what could be done to improve access.
They then invited representatives from the Deaf and disabled communities to a meeting at the House in May 2022 to provide feedback on the draft policy.
Among the feedback, members suggested:
- creating a large-print version of the Visitors’ Guide and the interpretation panels
- letting all visitors know what is available for disabled visitors: e.g. “If you need to sit down during your visit, there are identified chairs you can sit on.”
- being upfront about what you can and can’t offer, especially on the website: for example, photos of the entranceway steps and internal staircase
- offering half-price tickets for visitors who can only access the first floor
- providing a pre-recorded tour on the website
- providing an NZSL video on the website, with information to help Deaf people plan their visit
- thinking about the senses: e.g. creating things that people can touch or smell
- providing Deaf awareness training for staff and volunteers.
“It was a really helpful meeting that provided us with practical feedback,” Cherie says. “This has been fed into the policy and our action plan, and will be presented to the board for approval in August.”
Cherie says she’s looking forward to celebrating Katherine Mansfield’s legacy during her centenary in 2023, and welcoming the Deaf and disabled communities to the Katherine Mansfield House and its garden.