Saturday, 19 July 2014

The best museum I have visited in a very long time

Middle-class Victorian parlour
A trip to a museum is something I've always relished, and some of my earliest memories are of visiting them with my parents. When Mr Robot and I visited York recently, we visited York Castle Museum, and it is, without doubt, one of the best museums I have visited in some time.



Earlier this year we went to London for the launch of MiMi Aye's cookbook, Noodle! We had time to kill the following morning, so visited the Museum of London. I have come to love London, but the Museum of London didn't really grab me. Obviously it's a major city with a history predating the Romans, and that's a lot of history to fit into one location, so the displays on each separate period are fairly limited. On top of that, other London attractions and museums, such as the Tower of London and the V and A, have lots of major items relating to London's history in their collections, there's no centralised 'everything in one place' collection for London.

York is another city with a history that predates the Romans, but rather sensibly they don't try to cram everything in. Jorvik, nearby, does a superb job of telling the history of Viking York, and because York's mediaeval streets, walls and buildings are rather more complete than London's, you're able to find more about that period in other places in the city. York Castle Museum concentrates mainly on the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and does a really good job of it. Moreover, it mixes historical artefacts with interactive elements in a brilliant way, so it's engaging for kids yet still fascinating and deep enough for adults too.

1950s living room, ready for a birthday party
Instead of cabinets of similar items, the first part of the museum is a series of room sets, such as an 1860s middle-class parlour and an early Victorian rural cottage interior. I liked this much better than having similar objects grouped in cabinets, as while you didn't get a complete history of any one object (eg teapots) at a glance, you did get to see objects in context and get an idea of how people lived and how lives had changed. The room sets go right up almost to the present day, including a 1980s kitchen, and there's a special test kitchen where staff explain historic recipes to you and allow you to try some - when we were there, they were letting people try 18th century gingerbread, and explained that they were very lucky to have a cookbook from that period (handwritten by a cook).
1940s suburban kitchen
After a quick whisk through the farming sector, which was well done but not as good as the excellent room sets, there was a really nice display on Births, Marriages and Deaths, again from the Victorians to the modern day, with garments and objects relating to these life stages on show. The Victorian implements used in childbirth really made me cringe!
Stunning fabric on a silver 1930s wedding dress
The Victorian mourning clothes were beautiful, and I loved the wedding dresses, which included the trunk a Chinese lady brought when she moved to Yorkshire to marry her husband. The stories behind many of the dresses were included, making it a genuine history of people in York, not simply what people in York might have worn. I was touched to see the chocolate factories, among the city's major employers at one point, gave their staff beautiful wedding gifts (items given depended on seniority and length of service); one lady's Shelley china tea set was on display.

Victorian back street. Non-Victorian fire exit sign!
Then was my favourite bit: the Victorian street. Probably my favourite bit of the Museum of London was an area designed to look like a Victorian street. Well, York's knocks spots off it. All the building fronts bar one are authentic - the one that isn't had to be designed specially to fill an awkward space. There's a back street complete with slum rooms and laundry strung between the buildings (and a truly GRIM loo with a heap of model poop inside, complete with smell!), and a high street full of shops, all stocked with original items.
Part of the Victorian street - there's more through the archway

Another corner of the Victorian street. Genuine relocated shop fronts.
We were there while the Tour de France was on, but usually they have staff in one or two of the shops, too, for an even more complete recreation. BRILLIANT. The light goes from 'day' to 'night', so you get to see it at different times of day, too.
Inside the chemist's
While we were visiting the major changing exhibition was about the First World War, telling the story with a strong local perspective. It was beautifully arranged, and very moving. One bit was designed like an Edwardian railway carriage, with footage of the Belgian countryside going past the 'window'. As you sat there, you'd feel the thud-thud-thud of artillery, and the landscape changed... very simple, but incredibly moving. It's hard to grab the scale of the war, but by telling the stories of several people who served, the museum gives you a very good idea of what was going on and what conditions were like.

There's a 1960s street after that, but after the Victorian one it's a bit disappointing, and I suspect serious fans of the decade would want something a bit deeper. I know I did. Whether you like the style of the 1960s or not, it was a decade of massive social and cultural change, and there wasn't really space to convey the era.

After the 1960s street there are the dungeons. Audio-visual material is used well there. Because the cells have blank white walls, actors telling the stories of real prisoners are projected onto them, and it's a really interesting way to see the history of crime and punishment in York. Finally, you exit through the gift shop.

If you're in York, I really recommend a trip to the Castle Museum.

The first three photos are mine, copyright Miriam McDonald, the others are all copyright PP Gettins

7 comments :

  1. I do plan to go back here one day. I've only ever visited on school trips where we ran amok and didn't really appreciate what we were visiting!

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    1. Hehehe, that is the way of school trips - all marauding towards the gift shop!

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  2. That looks wonderful, right up my street. I love these things and find myself wanting to move in when there are sets or houses styled from particular eras.
    Beamish looks amazing, too, but I have never been.
    Unfortunately, the God forsaken backwater I live in doesn't have anything even remotely interesting to do, so I'm always madly envious of places which have plenty going on.
    It's nice to have a sneak look 2nd hand, so to speak, when others post where they have been.

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    1. Yes, I really love the 'room set' sort of museum. It's nice to see objects 'at home'.

      One of the reason I started a page with what's on in my local area is that things near me kept getting cancelled through lack of interest. I thought any publicity might help!

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  3. Looks like my kind of museum!

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    1. It's fab. I reckon you'd love the whole of York, it's such a beautiful city.

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  4. Next trip to York I am definitely going there. It sounds fabulous, I like room displays so that you can see everything in the correct context.

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