To get to the world’s first museum of Paralympic heritage, you have to make your way to the back of a nondescript housing estate in Aylesbury, weaving in and out of parked cars to navigate the narrow road.
It’s not the kind of place you’d imagine bumping into a superstar athlete, but dozens of household names will have made the same trip on their way to Stoke Mandeville Stadium, birthplace of the worldwide Paralympic movement and now home to the National Paralympic Heritage Centre, which opened earlier this year.
The museum’s off-the-beaten-track location is a reminder of the humble origins of the Paralympic Games. It was close to this site, in the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, that German neurologist Ludwig Guttmann established the National Spinal Injuries Centre, a specialist unit dedicated to rehabilitating injured military personnel returning from the frontlines of the second world war.
The centre’s first patients were paraplegics whose condition was regarded as incurable at the time. Guttmann took a holistic approach to their treatment, focusing not just on physical rehabilitation but on renewing his patients’ self-respect and sense of purpose. His ambition was to fully integrate disabled people into society, with equal rights to employment and leisure; he famously said to his patients: “I will make taxpayers of you all.”
Sports therapy became central to Guttmann’s approach. In 1948, he organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games, timed to run alongside the London Olympics, where paraplegic athletes competed in sports such as archery and wheelchair netball. More than 70 years later, the Paralympic Games is one of the world’s largest sporting events, and the small stadium in Aylesbury has become a site of pilgrimage for disabled athletes from around the world.
Guttmann himself has an extraordinary story. Once considered the foremost neurosurgeon in Germany, the Jewish doctor was stripped of his medical qualifications by the Nazis and forced to flee to England just before the outbreak of war in 1939. He was asked by the UK government to set up the spinal injuries unit ahead of the D-day landings, in preparation to receive soldiers injured during the invasion. His life’s work stands as a direct rebuke to Hitler’s poisonous ideology.
Punching above its weight
The National Paralympic Heritage Centre has quite a task to capture this monumental story of resilience and endeavour – and to do so in a space no bigger than your front room, tucked inside a busy sports centre.
But for a small venue, it punches above its weight, particularly as an example of how to integrate accessibility into the heart of an exhibition. The recent controversy at Tate Modern, where a wheelchair-using visitor was dismissively told to “go around the side” of a hard-to-access Olafur Eliasson art installation, demonstrates that this is something lacking in even the most hi-spec venues.
Such an incident is unlikely to happen here. The Paralympic Heritage Trust, which runs the museum and also creates temporary exhibitions at other venues, has put access at the core of its budget. To create the exhibition, an access consultant worked with a paid panel of disabled museum, culture and sports professionals to ensure every detail was up to standard.
The centre features some innovative access touches. On entering, visitors are greeted with a column featuring a brief introduction to the venue and a range of interpretative features aimed at people with different disabilities.
The use of colour and texture-coded panels particularly interested me. According to the Paralympic Heritage Trust, this coding was developed in collaboration with visually impaired groups, led by the visually impaired artist Lynn Cox. Each colour and texture represents one of the five themed areas of the exhibition: “introduction”, “Guttmann”, “timeline”, “the history of the sports wheelchair” and “sporting wins and celebrations”.
High-contrast, white-on-black text panels and wheelchair-height displays and screens are other examples of simple, inexpensive design features that can make a huge difference to visitors with disabilities.
After this introduction, the next section tells the story of Guttmann, accompanied by a display case showing objects donated by his family. A 1948 copy of The Cord – the journal of the paraplegic branch of the British Legion – features an article by the doctor on “readjustment to a new life” (alongside a hilariously patronising headline assuring women readers that “clothes are still fun”). A more sinister exhibit is the swastika-stamped letter dated 1938, informing Guttmann that he was no longer authorised to practise as a doctor.
The museum has a rich collection of Paralympic sporting heritage, including medals, mascots and photographs of the earliest sporting competitions organised by Guttmann. Although there isn’t a huge amount of space to display objects, the centre ensures visitors can delve deeper, by way of interactive panels and films, all of which feature audio description, subtitles and British Sign Language.
The artefacts on display in the “timeline” section comprise an array of outfits, logos and flags from successive Paralympic Games, as well as explaining the extraordinary story of how the games evolved from a hospital competition to a global phenomenon.
There are also fascinating displays on the technological innovation of Paralympic sports. Visitors can touch a running blade used by Paralympic sprinters, or close their eyes and throw a goalball – a ball with a bell inside designed for use by visually impaired athletes. Hands-on exhibits such as these really put the visitor in the shoes (or trainers) of the athletes – I would have loved to have seen more from other Paralympic sports.
There’s an entire section dedicated to the evolution of the sports wheelchair, from the heavy, cumbersome model that athletes used to secretly tamper with to lower its centre of gravity, to the lightweight, bespoke models of later years. The display highlights inventions that came from wheelchair-using designers themselves, such as the engineer Herbert Everest and the athlete Marilyn Hamilton – innovations that were to have profound implications for everyday wheelchair users.
The final section is bound to make even the most hard-hearted visitor feel nostalgic. A video takes us through the most memorable moments in British Paralympic history and opening ceremonies of games gone by. Visitors can take a selfie holding the London 2012 Paralympic torch and relive those magical few weeks when the games returned home.
The centre is a deceptively big space – thinking I’d get around it quickly, I ended up whiling away an hour or so among the exhibits. There were a few missing stories I would have liked to have seen – the games have had such a huge impact on how we perceive disability that I would have loved to have learned more about this societal transformation, and what the Paralympics mean to people.
I look forward to returning next year, when the museum will be planning a range of events around the 2020 games in Tokyo, including a walking trail linking the centre to the National Spinal Injuries Unit.
Guttmann and the Paralympians revolutionised society’s narrow view of disability – and this carefully thought-out museum is a fitting tribute to their legacy. I would encourage any museum professional to visit, just to see how simple it is to put accessibility at the heart of museum thinking.
- Cost £220,000
- Main funders National Lottery Heritage Fund; Aim-Biffa; Section 106; crowdfunding; Rothschild Foundation; Heart of Bucks; Community Chest; founding partners (BPA; WheelPower; Aylesbury Vale District Council; Buckinghamshire County Council)
- Exhibition design Mather & Co
- Display cases AM System
- Access consultant Jayne Earnscliffe
- Admission Free