Architects and their clients face very significant dilemmas in making historic buildings more inclusive in response to contemporary access standards and regulations. Architects, conservationists, owners, managers and trustees contemplating the alteration of historic buildings that house art galleries and museums must balance the needs of disabled people with the need to preserve the historic character of the buildings. In this extract from Making existing buildings accessible: museums and art galleries, we give an overview of points to consider.

The use of a historic building as a museum or an art gallery can be one of the most appropriate ways of ensuring the future viability of the building. The examples of the Queen's House, Hollytrees Museum and Towneley Hall Museum, all show how display and exhibition spaces can be formed without compromising the character of architecturally sensitive spaces.

Accurate historic analysis is essential if access improvements to historic buildings are to be achieved sensitively and successfully. This is important both aesthetically and socially — aesthetically, because important buildings which have been protected and conserved by previous generations are very vulnerable to alterations made for short-term or apparently urgent considerations such as "compliance" with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). It is also important socially because ill-judged alterations to premises and buildings that people value may provoke the perception that making buildings accessible is more about political correctness than about wider social benefits. A more successful approach is to try to carry out discreet and unobtrusive changes, so that the historic environment becomes inclusively easier for all people to use and enjoy.

Several principles can provide the guidelines for successful access improvements to historic buildings.

Historic analysis can help to identify:

  • Stages in the development of the building and of later alterations
  • Significant and less-significant areas of the premises
  • Original concepts for the buildings if not fully achieved
  • Areas which offer opportunities for possible access improvements.

The appraisal of options may include:

  • Temporary improvements, which are usually reversible
  • External improvements, often reversible and usually intrusive (for example ramps, wheelchair platform stairlifts, platform lifts and so on)
  • Internal improvements, which can often be integrated unobtrusively
  • Entry via an annex, basement or possibly a new extension
  • Entry via a reduced threshold level at an existing door or window
  • Internal vertical circulation, usually via a lift and especially where this can be unobtrusive
  • Ways to take pressure of visitor numbers off the most sensitive historic areas of the premises
  • Ways to develop under-used areas to create new commercial opportunities (for instance a shop, a café, meeting rooms and so on).

Many of the most successful access improvements have been achieved by providing step-free entry into the premises, with carefully located internal lifts to provide access to other levels. Even when this involves alterations to the external appearance of a historic building, as at the Queen's House or the National Gallery, the changes can be justified by the ease with which everyone can enter by the same route and reach the other floor levels by internal lifts, avoiding the need for external ramps or platform lifts.

The most successful examples involve bold interventions to achieve inclusive access, but always with a clear and sensitive response to the qualities of the historic fabric.

About this article

This article is an extract taken from Making Existing Buildings Accessible: Museums and Art Galleries by Adrian Cave.

Copyright RIBA Publishing January 2007.

Highly-illustrated, closely researched and authoritative in scope, Making Existing Buildings Accessible: Museums and Art Galleries by Adrian Cave examines impartially the evidence from 14 varied case studies to generate a set of guidelines specific to museums and art galleries. In six of the case studies, the story of the brief and design solutions is narrated by members of the project teams who undertook the alterations, revealing the process by which decisions were made and how the needs of disabled people were balanced with the need to preserve the historic character of the buildings. High profile projects such as the Queen's House, Greenwich, are examined in the same light as more modest ones, resulting in a valuable compendium of successful practical ideas.