You’d have to have been snoozing harder than Sleeping Beauty to have missed the spectacle of London 2012 Paralympic Games. But while the competition brought elite athletes from all over the globe together in London, how easy is it for ordinary people with limited mobility or sensory difficulties to get away from home? I spent a week in Germany looking at what tourism officials and businesses are doing to make their city or countryside more accessible for everyone, regardless of age, ability or disability. And I began my journey in the Rhineland city of Mainz.
Landesmuseum Mainz: accessible art & history
In Landesmuseum Mainz (the State Museum) there is a Picasso. There are many ways of seeing this Picasso. But I’m not talking about artistic appreciation. This unassuming yet rich museum offers practical and imaginative ways for people with disabilities and sensory or learning difficulties to enjoy its art and history.
Teaching an old building new tricks
People who have poor eyesight can visualise Picasso’s Woman’s Head 1908 by using a special three dimensional touching book that shows the painting in relief in various sections. The hard of hearing can borrow a hand held video console that guides them through this and other exhibits in sign language. On the same console, there is also a video guide for children.
The helping hand begins in the street, where blind people are led to the entrance with a series of raised bumps in the pavement, and then guided to the admission counter by lines in the polished floor. There are wide corridors throughout, sizeable lifts, unlimited ramps and state of the art disabled toilets. If you are blind, the museum can furnish you with a guide, or if you can’t walk far you can borrow a wheelchair free of charge. There are also fold-down seats you can carry around in case Granny or the kids need a rest, or you want to sit and contemplate an exhibit.
From dark and ugly to light and welcoming
This museum, housing a massive range of cultural and historical treasures, many donated by Napoleon, was designed with everyone in mind. Or to be more specific it was ‘redesigned’ with an eye to access for all. We are led around by Ursula Wallbrecher, a wheelchair user and the museum’s Scientific Employee who advised on the refurbishment in 2004.
“Back then it was a museum as museums were. Dark dusty and ugly,” she says. She is passionate about the museum’s facilities and exhibits, and it’s hard to keep up with either her chat or her electric chair. “For wheelchairs our house is nearly perfect,” she beams as she shoots off towards a lift.
Touch and feel and smell and sense
The Landesmuseum is set in former 18th century electoral riding stables once owned by the Archbishop of Mainz. We begin our tour at a section divided into ‘themes which have a relevance for humans’ with exhibits curated under concepts; for example a range of angels symbolise ‘faith’ while weapons of war help illustrate ‘violence.’ Every station has a touch screen, where you can make the script bigger, or change the colour. There are hands on displays too, complete with artefacts to touch, helmets to try on, clay to mould, material to feel. “I don’t think there are many museums around that are ‘inclusive’ like this; made for blind people and loved by children,” says Ursula. “Parents love to touch too but they wouldn’t say so.” she laughs.
The ultimate in lift space
Lifts can take up to eight wheelchairs (or double buggies for overloaded mums) and I estimate you could fit a family of twenty in the biggest. I can only compare it to museums back home like the World Museum in Liverpool, which at peak times has queues of mother’s fighting to fit a single buggy into the cramped lift space. We spin through gallery after gallery, popping in and out of The Stone Age, The Middle Ages, The Age of Enlightenment. We view Baroque furnishings and Art Nouveaux glass. It is all effortless. Even for the wheelchair users in our party who don’t run on electric like Ursula.
I have been in Germany for only half a day, and already I have seen the future. It is family-friendly, inclusive and accessible tourism. I am looking forward to touring the rest of this city by the Rhine as well as Koblenz, The Eifel and Dusseldorf. After all, what’s not to like about a region that includes everyone in its thinking?
This post is part of a short season of posts about accessible travel and tourism in Germany. Follow the link to find other posts on this theme.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to the German National Tourist Office and the Staatstheater Mainz for their support in helping us to bring you this story.