York Castle Museum - social history brought to life

Advantages: excellent location and fantastic displays of 400 years of local history.

Disadvantages: No audio guide and limited toilet facilities.

On 1 October 2009 I visited York Castle Museum for the first time.

It is a social history museum that is located in York on the very site of York Castle, which was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1068. It is two minutes walk from Clifford’s Tower and five minutes from Jorvik Viking Centre. It is considered to be a landmark in the development of museums and has twice won the York Tourism Award for best attraction.

During the 18th century the museum buildings were used as a prison. First they were a Debtor’s Prison and then later a Female Prison. As a museum it was founded by Dr John Kirk in 1938, who was a Yorkshire country doctor and a passionate collector of historical items used daily in the local area. Today the museum collection is of national importance in its scope and quality. So far over 31 million people have visited the museum.

When I entered the museum there were just a few visitors in front of the reception. The entry prices are £7.50 for adults, £4 for children and £6.50 for concessions. You are entitled to free entry to the museum at any time over the next 12 months. It is open daily from 9.30am to 5pm except for the Christmas period and New Year’s Day.

After buying my ticket a staff member directed me towards the left part of the building. However first I stopped to admire a red fire engine that had belonged to Rowntree, a famous chocolate factory in the area. Beside the engine you can see part of the original bailey walls of York Castle. In my opinion that is the reason for the museum to be named York Castle Museum.

Then I walked up to the first floor, where I saw a few recreated rooms that represented lifestyles from Late Medieval to Victorian and on to post war. So in the Victorian Parlour you can see beautiful furniture, fine china and ‘fresh’ desserts, etc. Those reflect the prosperity and comfort of a middle class family, who lived in the expanding city suburbs in 1870.

Moving on, you pass by a Moorland cottage in the north-east of Yorkshire in 1850s, and then you can see the peat fire, which was the centre of family activity, and was used for heating, cooking and providing hot water. The furnishings were practical more than decorative and often home made. 

Gradually moving back in time you will come across a Georgian drawing room, which is lined with pine panelling from a house in Davygate, and has been painted a fashionable 18th century colour. You can see the silverware, glass and ceramics that are typical of the kind being manufactured in England at that time.

The largest recreated room you will encounter is a dinning room from the 17th century. It belonged to a prosperous family of the period. The family no longer ate with the servants in a communal hall as they had done in mediaeval house. The fireplace was moved to the side of the room; the beams, panelling and furniture are all made of oak, but have darkened considerably with age.

 If the darkness of the room depressed your visit, I bet you will be pleased to go forward in time to a front room in 1950s. This is a living room of a semi-detached suburban house belonging to a working class family at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. Here you can see furniture of 1930s, 40s and 50s. Last but not least you can see a television set had already become a new form of entertainment, displacing the hearth as the focal point for the family. It is said that at the time many people purchased television sets especially to watch Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. This recalled my childhood, and how excited I was when in 1980s my family had our first TV set.

If these recreated rooms made me feel like a guest in different families homes the next exhibition of daily used products was more like rambling around the household department of a store. However here the most important thing you should take is your curiosity, not your wallet. You can see almost everything connected with people’s daily life, such as mops, vacuum cleaners, bath tubs, washing machines and refrigerators, etc. There is an empty bucket there. I tried to pull it up, but failed. In the past before the water pipe was introduced to families, women and children had to carry a full bucket of water from distance to home. I did enjoy this section particularly because some displays reminded me of items my family and I had used.

Next I walked downstairs to a gallery "From cradle to grave; birth death and marriage 1700 to 2000". From the name you can imagine how informative it is. Before I visited the museum I had read a few articles about its displays, in particular this gallery. When I was there I was still lost. Slowly moving my feet I passed birth, wedding, till death and mourning. I was surprised to see how complicated it is to dress a baby. In 18th century baby clothes were not just a matter of function and fashion. They were also a declaration of family wealth and status. However the tradition of ‘blue for a boy and pink for a girl’ did not appear until the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. Compared to the beautiful wedding dresses displayed inside a glass studio, Victorian attitudes to death and mourning were more tempting to me. In Victorian times a widow had to be in official mourning for two and half years after the death of her husband. When I read the information panel and saw the black dressing a widow had I remembered an American film’ Gone with the wind’ and understood the desperate feeling of Scarlett O'Hara, when she had to wear the widow dress all day everywhere. The Burneston Parish Hearse, which is displayed in the centre of the gallery, brought the Victorian funeral history more alive.

Leaving the gallery I encountered an exhibition titled Chinese Reflections, which was opened at Chinese New Year, 2008. In this exhibition you can see 300 years of Chinese influence on everyday life in Britain. Needless to say, it was one of my favourite sections. It was here I found Willow Pattern plates and vases, etc, also known as Chinoiserie, which are totally Chinese in design yet completely English in manufacture. When I visited some famous houses or castles in the UK I was surprised to see the owners had so much valuable Chinese porcelain. Now I realise I was being rather ignorant.

Then I passed by the Kitchen display area, where you can see different kitchens in different periods. One of Yorkshire hearth is noticeable. At one corner of the section there is a transparent modern kitchen, which had TV shows. When I visited this section I felt less interested as well as a bit tired, so I did not spend long there.

Following guide signs I walked downstairs and passed through a display of farm tools of the region. I did have a quick look at these tools, but I could not figure out their functions. It’s really a pity most visitors just take this area as a way to next destination- Kirkgate.

Kirkgate is a recreation of a Victorian street and named after Dr John Kirk, the founder of the museum. In the street you can see a woven basket handcart for delivering parcel and mail, a bank, a police station, different shops and a grocery store, etc. It reflects the flourishing prosperity of Victorian times. Sitting on the bench and experiencing the street scenes from early morning till late night I was lost in the sound effects. One month later when I put the keyboard to write this article I still clearly remember the staff member of the grocery store, who was outfitted Victorian dress and explained to me how Victorian shop worked, also the sound of coins being counted in a shop, not to mention the Hansom cab, the horse of which is so real and it made me hesitate to go near it for a picture.

Next to Kirkgate there is an area of Edwardian shops. An ice cream handcart is standing in the front of two shops. At the exit I also played an early slot machine which mimicked an English execution. Unfortunately 20p just gave me thirty seconds to see it. When the prisoner dropped into a hole I finally got the idea this was an execution not a game.

So far I had spent almost 4 hours in the museum. I thought I’d take a break. However I found for such large museum the toilet facilities and the cafĂ© are somewhat limited. I preferred the fresh air so I left the museum.

Next day in the late afternoon, after visiting the National Railway Museum and Yorvik Viking Centre I popped over to York Castle Museum again to continue my discovery of the rest of the exhibitions. I headed towards the right part of the building and walked upstairs to a weapons gallery, a children's gallery, costume displays and 60s show, etc. Last but definitely not the least I went to the old cells, which once locked many famous criminals in British history including the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin. Because it was near the museum’s closing time a staff member followed me around the cells. In case he lost his patience and put me in the prison I escaped in a hurry, leaving the protest of the criminals behind me.

All in all, York Castle Museum is the best social history museum I have seen. If I had enough time and energy I would like to have spent more time there, especially to have played a couple of old-fashioned games in the old prison exercise yard. If the museum could apply more modern museum technology, such as audio guides and interactive points, I would be further impressed.

Summary: York Castle Museum is perhaps the finest social history museum in England, but a few small improvements would make it great.