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The Archaeology of Accessibility

By Marloes van der Sommen

How accessible is our past and is it equally accessible to everyone?

As a child, I liked to crawl into bed with my parents in the mornings on weekends and in that security, cosy under the warm blankets, the following question usually followed: “Daddy, mommy, tell me about the old days?” I loved to imagine my parents’ childhood. What mischief did they get up to? What did they eat? What games did they play? How had they met? And grandpa and grandma? How were they? It all seemed like an eternity ago. Now I know it was only a few decades. But then it was a fine source for my imagination. And it also gave me a sense of belonging. I learned to better understand the world around me and thus learned the norms and values ​​of my family. I also developed my own identity with those stories, my person was also shaped by them. Aha: so that’s where I come from!

Archaeologists are storytellers. We dig up the stories, make the stories as complete as possible and then pass those stories on. And hopefully we will contribute to a better understanding of the world around us. We help to place our values ​​and norms in a broader perspective and thus contribute to the identity development of the society of which we are a part. With a joint past, we ensure connection ( ) Quite a responsibility!

But who are we actually doing this for, collecting stories and then telling them? And do those stories really get there? In recent weeks, as befits an archaeologist, I have been digging into the accessibility of our past. How do we tell those stories and who do we really reach? Together with Noortje van Lith (  ) I am investigating this in cooperation with some other archaeologists. As a first step, we organized a short lecture for students and employees of Saxion Archaeology with the aim of raising awareness. For this we are looking for experiences and have prepared a short survey and shared it widely (in Dutch)

As a result of this survey, I have already had several nice conversations. Conversations with people who never visit a museum because nowadays it is ‘an experience’, they become overstimulated and should therefore cut that visit into pieces, but that also means buying several tickets for one exhibition and that is too expensive. People who miss a whole part of the story because of that ‘experience’ in a castle because there was a nice ‘auditory addition’ (a kind of horn that you have to stand under and then the story is told). Or people who would really like to see an excavation up close, but can’t get close enough because of their scooter or wheelchair. Those who would like to join a tour on ‘Dutch Open Monument Day’, but cannot hear the guide in the open air because of their tinnitus. People who, because of the environment in which they grew up (can be culturally, but also different social frameworks, for example) do not even know what is available and why it could be of interest to them. Or do not see themselves represented, so do not feel at home there. It’s not their (his)story. People with a visual impairment who would like to climb a windmill, but where it is dangerous due to insufficient adjustments. People who would like to look up stories about the past on a website, but cannot read the texts on that website due to the wrong contrasts. Or being unable to follow a vlog about beautiful finds because of too many sounds and rapidly changing images, because they cannot concentrate that way. Anyway… enough examples that our stories do not always reach their goal and certainly not reach everyone. And that’s a shame, because that’s how we exclude people. People who are also just part of our contemporary society. People who also need connection. People who are part of that broad perspective that we want to offer. People whose story this also concerns: our shared past.

In Great Britain I have already seen steps taken in this direction: at conferences, a quiet room is offered for people who are sensitive to stimuli to relax after a lecture. Most museums there are also free to visit, which lowers the threshold for a visit. Archaeology lessons in the classroom are already a much larger and broader part of the curriculum there, which contributes to knowing what stories are available in the world. In Pompeii they have now built a wooden path so that people in wheelchairs can also visit the ancient Roman city. In many Mediterranean museums there are tactile objects for people with a visual impairment, so that they too can form a more concrete idea of ​​​​the objects on display.

In the Netherlands, we can still lower a lot of barriers or even remove them completely to make the past more accessible. Also literally: removing stairs and steps in museums or providing them with a ramp, having disabled toilets readily available, placing buttons for a film or sound fragment at the right height.

But we can’t change what we don’t know. It struck me in recent conversations that I have a lot of blind spots, that I often don’t know what people run into (or drive). It is therefore important to talk to each other, we still have a lot of digging to do. Which stories do you miss? And why is that? Please let me know!