There are three museums in the city of York: The Yorkshire Museum, York Castle Museum and the Yorvik Centre, and to some extent they represent the past, present and the possible future of museums.
The Yorkshire Museum is old and was founded in 1830 by Yorkshire Philosophical Society to house their collection of geological and archaeological objects. The museum was design in the Greek Revival style and is a listed building. In 1961, the museum’s assets were given over to the City of York Council. The collection remains focused around four themes: biology (the stuffed specimens), geology (rocks and fossils), astronomy including an observatory in the gardens, and the million or so objects of archaeological origins. The objects dug up come from the local area from the Roman period onwards.
Most notable are the 8th Century Coppergate Helmet, found in York, and the Bedale Hoard of Viking jewelry. There are a few hoards in the museum, so I assume hoarding must have been a popular past time is York’s history with all those invaders after its wealth. The Yorkshire Museum is somewhat typical of a museum born in the time of Victorian explorers, although to its credit, this is very much a local collection.
York Castle Museum is located on the site of the Medieval castle of which only the Clifford Tower remains and in ruins. The rest of what is known as the castle were prisons built in the 18th Century using the castle’s stone. The museum was the idea of John Lamplugh Kirk, a doctor and amateur archaeologist. He had a large collection (another hoard) and offered it around to different towns and cities, and it was the York Corporation who owned the female prison who took up the offer, and converted the prison to house Kirk’s collection of social history bygones creating what became known as Kirkgate, an indoor late Victorian street, the first of its kind in UK. A new attraction was born in 1938 on the eve of war, and the museum remained open throughout the war.
Its a popular attraction still. As a child I remember walking the recreated street, peering in the shop windows at the origin items, the daily life depictions, the things kept and displayed in as close to reality as possible. No glass cabinets for these objects. The museum also makes good use of the prison, where you can visit the cells of the debtor’s prison and county gaol, even the cell of the notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, where he sat the night before his execution in 1739.
Dr Kirk wanted a very different kind of museum to house his objects, and the Kirkgate has been copied around the world, but the original concept remains memorable and nostalgic.
There’s plenty more to see at York Castle museum: arts and crafts; a Jane Austen costume collection; and a Swinging Sixties gallery. Compared to the Yorkshire Museum, this museum has captured a blend of displaying objects in some kind of contemporaneous context, very 20th century.
What about the Yorvik Viking Centre? Created in 1984 by the York Archaeological Trust, its name is the old Norse for York. The site of the centre is on the old Coppergate confectionary factory, which was demolished, and excavated, to reveal preserved buildings of the Viking era, when York was ruled by the Danes. There are 800 objects exhibited, but what people come to see, feel, and smell, is not these objects, it is the tableaux depicting Viking life, the shops, streets and markets, including the smelly latrines. Presented to the visitor as an indoor theme park ride, you sit in a small silently moving carriage, dragged through the scenes, one by one, using overhead railings. At the end is a recreation of an archaeological dig.
The recreations don’t use real objects, and the prize Coppergate Helmet, of which a replica is on display in the Centre, actually sits in the Yorkshire Museum. So is this a museum or simply a tourist attraction? Yes, there are objects on display, so it can legitimately be called a museum, but unlike the Kirkgate experience where real objects placed in context, Yorvik has put greater emphasis on the recreation by engaging all our senses and using real-life figures, and it is effective, and entertaining, certainly fun for the whole family.
Will museums rely more on these kind of experiences, perhaps replacing original objects with replicas to protect them? Would Dr Kirk have approved if his Kirkgate had gone the whole way and added the sensory smells and uses replicas, keeping the real objects carefully out of sight. And what of the prison cells, they are close to being realistic; cold and echoing with audio narrators retelling the prisoners’ stories is hauntingly evocative. What if those were replaced with actors playing the part and allowing us to interrogate them about their experiences?
It’s a different view, controversial, and likely to push museums to the brink of what is best – objects or education or entertainment? Well, frankly why not all three: York’s three museums have between them done great justice to the history of the city, and only by visiting all three can you rediscover it.