A Trip to York Castle Museum and the Amazing Victorian Street

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I love York.

It's the ancient capital of the North and has always been a brilliant spot for a tourist who loves a bit of history. From the city walls to the Shambles to the minster, you can really breathe in the layers of age in this place, so it's of no surprise that the city's museums are also excellent. When I visited recently I decided to check out the biggest and most eclectic example: York Castle Museum.

The Clue's in the Name

York Castle Museum is a large Georgian style building that sits at the base of Clifford's Tower and has a significant amount of history of its own. It sits on the grounds of York castle, which was built as a timber structure by William the Conquerer in 1066 and included a prison. in 1244 it was converted to stone and was used until it fell into disrepair in the 1340s and recieved a further battering in 1644 during the civil war. By 1705 all but Clifford's tower was demolished of the old castle and in its place a new debter's prison had been built in its place. 1780 saw the expansion of a whole new women's prison alongside it and by 1835 it was modernised into a large 'model' prison with new buildings. Come 1929 the victorian 'model' prison was demolished, leaving the older buildings to be creatively used for the new museum.

So What's On Offer?

York Castle Museum is probably the biggest and most eclectic museum I've visited. (Though I've got my eye on you, British Museum. Soon, my precious, soon...) The museum itself is divided into two wings - the women's prison building and the debtor's prison building - but otherwise takes you on a relatively linear journey through several fascinating exhibits.

The Period Rooms

York castle museum has a brilliant attention to detail when it comes to the exhibits, and this is shown off to it's fullest in the period rooms. As you move through the exhibits you can peek inside full scale rooms set up from different time periods: the 1870s, rural 1850s (including the fascinating witch ball ornament), 1780s (including a dummy houseguest used to deter burglars), and the 1600s. Each section looks well lived in and has it's own curious features that are worth investigating.

Toy Stories

From the darker fussy period interiors you are suddenly pulled into a land of colour with the toy story exhibit which showcases toys from 150 years of history. It's a mixed bag: while there are some beautiful objects like the punch and judy dolls and 'Gilligan's Galloping' miniature carousel, the exhibit is bogged down in being cluttered with a mis-match of donated toys from the general public all dumped together in one place, which looks to be honest rather like a car boot sale. However, in here there is also another period room set up like a 1950s birthday party which is definitely worth a look for it's authenticity.


Gilligan's Galloping Carousel


From Cradle to Grave

As you move from the bright world of toys you head downstairs to a more traditional museum exhibit that shows the development of midwifery and of funeral culture. Here the mix between donated items and public testimony and more formal exhibits is more balanced and you get a real sense of the personal journeys of new mothers. Sat in the centre of the room is an imposing wax sculpture of a victorian funeral carriage alongside examples of the development of victorian mourning culture and all the curious layers of etiquette that came alongside it. Things brighten up again with a display on marriage and a series of wedding dresses through the ages. i was most interested by the 1940s example that stuck out like a sore thumb among the finer gowns, showing the humility and creativity needed from brides in the war years when rationing was at its height.


Part of the wedding display


The Hearth Gallery

Similar to the period rooms, this exhibit recreates a series of kitchens, showing how this centre of the home developed over the years with each new bit of technology. It's a perfect display for anyone looking for a bit of nostalgia, taking you through the 1940s and 1980s kitchens that so many of us will remember before guiding you through to older examples. look out for the absolutely massive taxidermy bull's head of 'Pat the Giant' in the farmhouse kitchen - he was a beast, weighting in at 254 stone back in his glory days.


One of the excellent storefronts of the Victorian Street


'Kirkgate' - The Victorian Street

This is easily one of the best museum exhibits in the country and is a really magical experience. Kirkgate was originally designed by the museum founder Dr.Kirk to perfectly replicate a real victorian street, filed with shop businesses that actually existed in York at some time or another. 
I came to York castle Museum as a very young kid and Kirkgate is the only vague memory i have of it: i remembered being completely blown away by the dark moodily lit streets, beautiful shop fronts and the fantastic real examples of horses and carriages that stood there. now as an adult revisiting the place it was everything I remembered and more. The street is surprisingly large with it's main street, back allies and several shops and homes that you can step inside and explore. It would honestly make even the most established movie set feel a little envious. The shop windows are authentic examples filled with original items and give you a real sense of the variety of items that were available for the casual victorian shopper, and these are supported by copies of real posters and adverts on the walls of the streets. What's more, there's a neat day-to-night transition that takes place, giving a real moodiness to the streets as darkness falls and a fresh optimism as day breaks. It's a brilliant experience that is a must for adults and kids.


A recreated apothecary


1914: When the World Changed Forever

Head across into the debtor's prison and you can enjoy a new exhibit that deals with the first world war. We've recently had the centenary of WW1 so you're no doubt familiar with the period of history, however for me it's always interesting to learn more about the 'less famous' world war: the one where there wasn't a simple good vs evil narrative and it was really just a load of allies clustering on top of one another because of a confused sense of political duty. The exhibit is as creative and varied as ever, with trenches recreated, train carriages set up, painted murals of the battlefield, as well as a whole series of interesting artifacts, such as the papier mache 'dummy head' that was used to draw fire in trench warfare. Towards the end of the exhibit things get a little naff with community project pieces, but that's my personal taste.



A Dummy Head to draw enemy fire


The Sixties

From the austerity of war you're booted into another street-eque exhibit that is set in the 1960s. the bright colours and classic icons are certainly engaging, but in my opinion it doesn't really tell you very much of substance about the 60s and seems more like a collection of common pop art that they've now got an excuse to sell you replicas of in the gift shop. but again, I've never been a fan so it's very much my opinion. the design of the exhibit itself is certainly pretty, though.


Sixties flower power


York Castle Prison

The final prison exhibit gives you a rather grim but interesting glimpse into the history of the museum itself, as you are taken down into the debtor's prison cells and the corrupt prison life of the 1700s is put on show. I like that it doesn't go full on York Dungeon on you and become an exploitative bit of tripe. Instead it speaks unflinchingly of life there while also catering to your natural curiosity. Interestingly Dick turpin himself was held at york prison in 1738 where is gaoler used to make £100 from selling liquor to Turpin's visitors while the famous highwayman entertained the crowds by recounting stories of his daring deeds. Elsewhere in the museum, the most interesting items for me were the preserved slabs of stone that held prisoner's graffiti from hundreds of years ago. there isn't a whole lot to look at down here in items, but you can really appreciate the architecture. In each cell there are projections of the usual am-dram actors recounting the stories of people who lived there. If you can get past the often iffy acting (let's be honest, it's a museum. the acting is always bad!) their stories are on the whole quite interesting.



So Should You Visit?

Definately! In my opinion York castle Museum is worth a visit for the fantastic Victorian street alone, but it also offers a very varied experience that's definitely worth checking out. Two thumbs up.



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