North Yorkshire: The Good, the Bad, and the Meh; A Tale of Three Captain Cook Museums

I know that Captain Cook is problematic for a number of reasons, not least for the negative impact his “discoveries” had on pretty much every indigenous population he encountered, but I have to admit that I find his voyages absolutely fascinating. Ever since reading Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, I have wanted to visit the Cook museums in North Yorkshire, which include the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Marton, the Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre in (you guessed it) Staithes, and the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby (there’s also the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum in Ayton, but that wasn’t open at the time of our visit). Because we are gluttons for punishment, we decided to do all of these museums in one day (along with Durham Town Hall, which we visited that morning). Fortunately, all the museums had eliminated their pre-booking requirement by then, which made the logistics of the day a lot easier. I’m not going to give very much background on Cook’s voyages in this post, since I’ve done that in various earlier posts, but will instead focus on the content of the museums.

  

The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum was the closest to Durham, so that’s where we started. There may be parking closer to the museum that we didn’t see, but we followed the signs and were directed into a carpark in a field next to a funfair. We ended up having to walk about half a mile across the field to reach the museum (Tony Horwitz also describes a trek across a “soggy field” so I suppose that was the closest carpark. We were lucky to be visiting in July, because the field was refreshingly green and dewy rather than soggy), where we were greeted by the large moai statue perched in front of the museum. I felt a bit apprehensive about entering because of all the noise coming from inside the building as we approached the admissions desk to pay our £4 entry fee, but it transpired that it was only the museum café that was busy – we were the only visitors in the museum, which made for a very pleasant experience indeed.

  

There isn’t much to tell about James Cook’s childhood in Marton, mainly because it’s not well-documented historically, but that didn’t stop the museum from putting together a tableau of a young Cook and his mother in their cottage kitchen, complete with pre-recorded dialogue in amusingly strong Yorkshire accents, and a dish of some truly disgusting looking fake stew. The cottage where he was born no longer stands, having been destroyed in the 1780s due to its already derelict state. The family only lived in the cottage until Cook was eight; they moved to Ayton in 1736, which was where Cook was educated in the village school.

  

Since the information on Cook’s early life is so limited, the museum quickly moved on to his later life, from his move to Whitby, early career in the Navy, and finally, to his three voyages of exploration, with a different room devoted to each. Despite the many typos I uncovered on the museum signs (especially with dates – at one point they claimed the house where Cook lived in Whitby was built in 1865, nearly a century after he died! I think they meant 1685, and someone had neglected to proofread thoroughly before printing), this was by far the most interesting of the three museums. They didn’t have many original artefacts (most of the objects in the museum were facsimiles), but they had a lot of objects generally, not to mention a healthy supply of mannequins. They even had a video showing you how to do a Yorkshire-themed haka, which was fun, if a bit too long.

 

In addition to Cook, the museum also had a small gallery on other adventurers from the local area, including Gertrude Bell, Katherine Maria Pease Routledge, and most interestingly to me, Frank Wild, who was a veteran of multiple Shackleton Antarctic expeditions. In another nearby field, there is an urn marking the probable location of Cook’s birthplace, and you can buy a DIY cardboard replica of the cottage in the shop (we got it mainly because it said Cleveland on it). Although it may not have gone far enough in discussing the devastating effect Cook’s voyages would ultimately have on the people he encountered, this was by far the best of the three museums, so it’s a bit of a shame we started the day with it, as I’m a great believer in saving the best for last.

 

Although we were both already a little museumed-out after taking the time to thoroughly peruse our first two museums of the day (counting Durham Town Hall), and we did discuss skipping Staithes and heading straight to Whitby, I was stupidly won over by the hyperbole on northyorkmoors.org.uk, which insisted “You really should seek out this fantastic visitor attraction.” OK! We eventually found a space in the carpark in Staithes, which was crowded because no cars are allowed in the village proper, which is located at the bottom of an exceedingly steep cobblestone hill.

  

The Staithes Heritage Centre is fortunately free, because I would have been even more annoyed by the experience if we’d actually paid for it – as it was, I was pissed off enough that I had to walk up and down a giant steep hill for this. Tony Horwitz mentioned the re-creation of William Sanderson’s shop, where Cook worked for a whole eight months as a shop assistant after leaving Ayton at the age of 17, which is partially what sold me on visiting, but the “1745 life-size street scene of Cook’s time in Staithes” is right at the start of the museum (and holds an actual shop – this small museum has not one, but two gift shops, which should tell you something about their priorities) and when I stopped outside it to wait for the man in front of me to finish reading the sign so I could have a better look, the woman at the front desk rather testily asked me if I needed help with something, so I felt like I was being moved along, and gave up on the “street scene” to head upstairs to see the “huge collection of exhibits from Cook’s life”.

  

I won’t deny that it is a “huge collection” relative to the amount of space that contained it, but my god was it just a load of crap. Picture a room crammed with the most worthless ephemera, including newspaper clippings related to Staithes, model ships, prints, 20th century Cook memorabilia, and terrible paintings by local artists. If there were any original artefacts, they would have been impossible to spot amongst the piles of tat. Even the allegedly “artisan gift shop” didn’t contain any products that I would consider living up to that description, so after reluctantly walking a bit further down the hill to see the sea (grey and depressing), we laboriously climbed back up the giant hill and headed straight for Whitby.

 

We had been to Whitby about eleven years ago, but neglected to visit any museums on that visit, possibly on account of the awful weather. Unfortunately, this visit had even more awful weather. It was lovely and sunny in Marton, but by the time we got to Whitby, the wind had picked up and it started absolutely pissing it down, so we made a run for the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. This was by far the most expensive museum of the day, at £7 (though they also have the fanciest website, so at least you can see where the money is going I guess), and unfortunately also the most crowded, as two other groups who were presumably also attempting to shelter from the storm came in right behind us, and we found several more groups ahead of us. The museum didn’t appear to have any particular rules about Covid safety, as we were all just crammed into this relatively small house (some of the groups not wearing masks), and one of the volunteers proudly announced that he had just closed the windows since it was raining in, which goes against all the rules at the museum where I work (we are required to have ventilation, to the extent of sitting freezing in my office with open windows in the winter, and just letting it rain in all over the listed woodwork when it’s storming (we go around sopping up the water with rags at the end of the day)), so I wasn’t feeling particularly comfortable in here.

  

This house (which was indeed built in 1685) was owned by Cook’s master, Quaker shipowner James Walker, and was where Cook lived from 1746 until 1755, when he went off to sea, so this is the only one of the buildings we saw that day where Cook had actually lived. The family were quite fond of him, to the point where the maid forgot her formal Quaker ways and referred to him as “James, honey” when he returned to visit after one of his voyages. This museum focused more on the scientific aspects of his voyages (the first one was meant to be recording the transit of Venus), and did contain some original artefacts, though the bits of Cook’s correspondence on view were only facsimiles. They still made for interesting reading, but my favourite part was the special exhibition in the attic on that dishy Joseph Banks, which we sadly weren’t allowed to photograph.

  

Had I not seen the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, or been crammed into a stuffy house with so many maskless people, I think I might have enjoyed the Cook Museum in Whitby a bit more, but as it was, I was not particularly impressed, especially with the £7 admission fee, as the Birthplace Museum had easily three times the amount of content and much more pleasant surroundings. I also think (as you may have guessed from the “Memorial Museum” part of the name) that they glorified Cook even more than the Birthplace Museum did, the Birthplace Museum at least having made a significant effort to describe the cultures of the indigenous people Cook encountered. There is also meant to be a Cook collection in the Whitby Museum (and a hand of glory!), but we were so sick of museums and getting rained on by this point that we just huddled in a doorway eating some chips before heading off on what was probably my most important expedition of the day: procuring Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream.

 

As you may know, Whitby is the setting for Dracula, and a meeting place for goths. The only part of my visit eleven years ago that I really enjoyed was eating a scoop of Bram(ble ) Stoker ice cream (blackberry ice cream with white chocolate chips. The flavour is delicious, but I’m really in it for the name). Marcus had taken a picture of me eating my ice cream outside the shop, which made it easy to spot, and though the exterior has changed, the shop is still there, and I was thrilled(!) to see they still had Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream, so you better believe I stood out in the freezing rain and ate it (I also may have died at this point, because I appear to be a ghost in all the remaining photographs of that day). Having completed my mission, we ran back to the car and headed straight for our (incredibly grim) hotel in Malton (not to be confused with Marton). I am glad to have finally seen these museums after reading about them years ago, but the only one I think was worth the effort was the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. Definitely skip Staithes, and only bother with Whitby’s Cook Museum if you’re hiding from the weather (which is apparently always awful there, because if it’s not warm at the end of July, when is it warm? I can see why James Cook got the hell out as soon as he could).

10 comments

  1. Four museums in a day is definitely heroic and deserves an ice cream -maybe even more than one! I love both the name and flavor of the bram(ble) stoker ice cream. It sounds totally yummy (and well deserved). Whenever I read your posts on Cook, it makes me want to do more research into the transit of Venus expeditions, especially since Philadelphia and the American Philosophical Society played a part. Something for my to do list…

    1. Only one ice cream, but after we got to the town where our grim hotel was, we went to a brewery and then ate an absolutely obnoxious amount of Italian food, including a chip pizza, so that’s almost as good.
      You should definitely do more research on the transit of Venus expeditions! I’d love to hear more about them.

  2. Interesting for me. I did a great course from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on the FutureLearn Platform called “Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in museums and public spaces”, which I’d heartily recommend. As you say for people like me from the Pacific region, Cook is a controversial character. I actually finished the course thinking that Cook was a scapegoat for all our angst against British Colonialism and that Cook was quite an explorer who simply carried out his orders and probably did not approve of some of the treatment of dished out to the Indigenous populations by Banks and sailors in his crew but rather he was conflicted. Such a shame that his wife burned all his correspondence because we may have been able to see the real Cook just as we learned so much from Bligh’s letter’s to his wife. When I visit the UK I will definitely do my museum research – so many museums and so little time. In Australia, the trend is to tell the story of Cook in parallel with the stories of Indigenous Australians who were here 60,000 years before him with a very rich cultural heritage. Australia was not Terra Nullius and neither was New Zealand, Hawaii and many other island nations that they visited.

    1. That course does sound fascinating; I’ll definitely look into it! Interesting theory about Cook serving as a scapegoat. He definitely wasn’t responsible for everything that followed as a result of his voyages, and I suppose if he hadn’t done it, someone else would have eventually done the same with an outcome just as bad for the indigenous people of Oceania. Not trying to excuse him, but he was a cog in the machine.

  3. They didn’t have the big pot the natives boiled him in?😉 Okay, that’s in poor taste. I’m not much for being PC.

    I looked at that first photo of you with the ice cream and went, “Why can I see through her? That’s creepy!” I wondered if the photos were taken through a window.

    1. No window involved – we were both standing outside! It was probably just an effect of the rain though. I’ve also seen a “ghost” appear on the security cameras at work one time when it was pouring rain. At least, I’m pretty sure it was the rain, but that hasn’t stopped me from telling my ghost story to everyone.

  4. Sounds like an interesting trip although the weather was a bit of a nightmare. We’ve always had the same in Yorkshire, rain and more rain. Can’t always be like that surely? Museums sounded ok although three in a day was pushing it wasn’t it? You must’ve been Cook’d out!

    1. It was nice the day we drove up and stopped in Ripley, but of course the weather turned by the time we actually had to get out of the car and do stuff. So I think they do get some ok weather, but only a day or two here and there.

  5. Oh happy day, to be the only ones in the museum!
    Quite like that tableau of young Cook with his mom. But yeah, that grey meat in the stew is pretty revolting-looking – more so, the lumpy, greenish matter oozing from the pie.
    Have to say, the Birthplace Museum’s mannequin game is really good. The figure in the hammock looks almost alive.
    Holy smokes, the photo with all the “artwork” (including the, er, interesting painting of the little people clowns) is part of the “collection”? I’d get a headache trying to absorb a fraction of that jumble.
    I laughed hard at your post-ice cream ghostliness – but the photo of your haunting is lovely!

    1. Yeah, all that food looked horrible. I’m glad Yorkshire cuisine has moved on somewhat since then. I’ve got a friend who is disgusted by “museum cheese” i.e. the fake cheese in museum displays, so of course I tracked down a prop store that sells it and got him a hunk as a gift. They had quite a few other foods too, but nothing quite as disgusting as the ones at this museum. I’d love to know where they sourced them from (mannequins too!). I never seem to work at the kind of museum that has this kind of crap (the wax figure of Athelstan at my last job nonwithstanding, since he was there long before I was) so I’m not well-versed in where all this stuff comes from.
      Those paintings are part of the “collection”. Looks more like a junk sale!

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