York: York Castle Museum

I have a tendency to overdo it on holiday and visit way too many museums to the point where I end up completely exhausted. I was trying very hard not to do that this time and instead limit myself to one museum per day, but we seriously only spent half an hour at the Jorvik Viking Centre (and that was with riding the ride twice!), so I thought another museum wouldn’t hurt, particularly a fun one. And York Castle Museum seemed like it definitely fit the bill. A museum with a street of yesteryear, Victorian prison, and an exhibition from the Museum of Broken Relationships?! Yes, please!


But all that fun comes at a price. £12 to be exact, or £10.90 without Gift Aid. Actually, because we visited on a weekend during their Dickensian Christmas event, we paid even more than that – £13.90. Though if you’re not visiting with kids who want to see Santa, I think you can safely skip the weekends. I didn’t see anything magically Christmassy enough to justify the higher price (the decorations stay up for the whole Christmas season, it’s just the Dickens characters and Santa that are only there on a weekend). But this is probably making me seem a bit down on the museum, which was far from the case.


Contrary to what you might think from the name (naturally enough), the museum is not actually built in a castle, but is located in an old gaol on the site of what once was York Castle (there is still a castle-looking structure, called Clifford’s Tower, nearby). It was built by a Dr. John Kirk who sounded like a typical eccentric Victorian(ish) collector and wanted somewhere to house his collection and showcase the traditional ways of Yorkshire life. Apparently the museum was the first of its kind in Britain with everything designed to best showcase the objects in his collection, including the creation of a Victorian street named Kirkgate after its founder. I mean, frankly, the man sounds like a delight (except for the whole preserving traditional ways thing, which sounds a bit UKIPy for my tastes, though maybe he didn’t mean it in that way), and his museum still basically is.


We started by going up a walkway that had a brief timeline of York history and then looked at a few mock-ups of rooms throughout history, and an excellent collection of Staffordshire Dick Turpin figurines. This led into the “Toy Stories” gallery, which contained old, creepy, and sadly, even racist (blackface performing dolls) toys. Fortunately, I saw this gallery shortly before we saw the stage version of Mary Poppins in the West End (I’m like a super fan of Charlie Stemp, who plays Bert), because the musical has these giant creepy toys that come to life, and I would definitely had been more freaked out by these toys had I seen the play first. The toys segued into “Shaping the Body”, which was a collection of historic clothing arranged roughly chronologically. Most notable were the pieces of clothing belonging to corpulent monarchs. Above you can see Victoria’s dress, and George IV’s shirt. Everyone mocks George IV for being fat, of course, particularly cartoonists like Gillray, but jeez, judging by that dress, Victoria was even bigger! The woman was practically a cube (I know fat-shaming isn’t nice, but Victoria was so horrible she has it coming)! They also had a few dress-up stations, and I was dying to do it, but the clothes were very definitely child-sized, and there were too many people about, so I chickened out.


Next was Kirkgate, the ye olde street. And it was a good one! The Dickensian Christmas element seemed to be people dressed up as characters from his novels, though I’m not familiar enough with most of Dickens’ oeuvre to have recognised them by sight. There was also a magician, but I think he probably sensed my distaste for activities that involve audience participation, because he kept his magic to himself. There was even a sweet shop where you could actually buy sweets, but as the prices were quite high and they didn’t have soor plums (no reason they would, they’re a Scottish thing. I just really like them) we gave it a miss. I did, of course, pretend to try out the outhouse though, and managed a particularly unpleasant fake pooping face.


After Kirkgate, we ended up back where we came in and had to cut through the shop to see the other half of the museum (kind of like the Museum of Oslo). This was just as large as the first half of the museum, and began with a WWI gallery. Similar to other museums I know and love (Thackray Museum), York Castle Museum gives you a list of real people who were alive at the time, and has you pick one to follow through the war and find out at the end whether you had survived. I picked a guy called Albert, both because I like the name, and his symbol was a plane, so I figured I would get to do some flying, though I think he was primarily a aircraft mechanic.


I don’t think there was enough follow-up with this because I only caught a few updates on Albert throughout the display (he did survive the war, but not for terribly long after) but the rest of the exhibition was pretty good. I liked the fake head on a stick that resembled the actual ones stuck over the parapet of the trenches to try to trick the enemy into firing to reveal their position. Like so many other WWI projects, this was HLF funded, and so it had a similar feel to other exhibitions I’ve seen in terms of interactivity and concept.


Next came the exhibition by the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I’ve been meaning to see if I ever make it to Croatia. I assume this was only a sampling of what’s there because there were only maybe 50 objects on show. If you’re not familiar with the concept, people who have been in relationships that have ended have donated objects representing those relationships and written a short piece on the relationship and how it ended. These could be terribly poignant (the one written by a man whose wife had died from cancer), but also quite funny (a fake penis with piercings that represented the piercings of a guy who got them without asking his partner). There were objects that had been donated specially for this exhibition by people from Yorkshire, and a display on Brexit to represent the breakdown of Britain’s relationship with the EU. Based on what I saw here, I don’t know if I would schedule a trip to Zagreb solely for this museum, but it was interesting to read people’s stories of heartbreak.


We were then directed outside where we saw the site of the old gallows (though you couldn’t climb them) and the stocks (these you could use, as you can see at the bottom of the post). There was a sign pointing to something called the Rainham Mill, but I wasn’t totally sure if it was part of the museum (and also it was cold and rainy) so we didn’t go. Turns out it is part of the museum, and is a Victorian watermill, so don’t be like me – check it out if you visit!


Finally, there was a gallery on the 1960s (disappointing because there were no dress-up opportunities), and the old prison cells! These were actually a bit scary because it was very dark, and there were video projections based on real prisoners that would only show up after you’d walked into the cell. The best one (and worst one, I guess) was a cell where nine people had suffocated one night, which was absolutely pitch black and had sounds of people struggling to breathe. After you had made your way all the way into the room, green writing suddenly popped up on one wall about the people who died. Scary but sad! There were also cells dedicated to famous prisoners, including Dick Turpin, and a room with an audio recording of poetry written by prisoners.


This museum was actually loads of fun, enough to probably justify the high entrance fee, as we spent ages here and could have spent even more time had we seen the mill. As it was, we were tired and hungry, so headed straight over to Betty’s for tea, which is basically obligatory for all visitors to York (I do wish they offered a non-fruited plain scone, but I did enjoy my fruit-free rarebit scone and my very buttery caramel and walnut tart with ice cream. And lots of Earl Grey. Probably too much in fact, as I was peeing every ten minutes for the rest of the night). 4/5 for York Castle Museum, I think. Pricey, but just about worth it (certainly more so than Jorvik Viking Centre)!


    1. There is a collection of antique cars at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland that used to have a street of yesteryear at the back. You couldn’t actually go in any of the shops, but it was the only part of the car gallery that was interesting to me so I would always run straight for it as a kid and spend all my time perusing the windows. I know Kirkgate was the first ye olde street in Britain, but I don’t know where the first one in the world was. I’ll try to find out!

  1. Enjoyed your write-up. I love York Castle Museum. Like Anabel, above, it was the first one I ever saw with a street in it. It is expensive, though; but, apart from walking round the walls, York can be.

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