York Castle Museum
After journeying through Viking history in York (at the Jorvik Viking Centre), I headed over to explore the first of three York Museums Trust holdings, York Castle Museum. The museum’s site surprises in part because it’s housed in two buildings built *over* the remains of the original castle, built when William the Norman conquered England. All remains of the original wooden castle are gone. Clifford’s Tower and some of the walls remain. The museum itself is housed in the old debtors’ and womens’ prisons.
The core of the social history collection is from a former physician, Dr. Kirk, who took as payment various items from patients around York. The first collection comprises a set of “period rooms” which show how various castes lived throughout history in the Yorkshire area, and is mesmerizing. Did you know that dollhouses were actually used to teach young girls how to accomplish their household duties?
After we walked through the period rooms, we headed into the Toy Stories exhibit – a really fascinating collection of toys from the past 100+ years. Next came the Shaping the Body exhibit… awash in clothing displays from corsets to fashion-forward dress design (and not forgetting the biker jackets and other great items). Guest participation is encouraged, with articles from various time periods available to try on and walk the fashion catwalk.
Shaping the Body continues on through a complete food/kitchen exhibit, as well as a small section about exercise and sport, with a surreal calisthenics video, circa 1940-50. We then moved on to one of the jewels of the Castle Museum… an authentically recreated Victorian-era York street, complete with an array of shops, houses, alleys, and more – very absorbing!
Next on our journey through time, we learned about the social upheaval and personal tragedies of World War I. Museum staff made this area even more interesting to children (and some adults!) with a paper “People Trail” guide available to complete as one walks through the exhibition.
Next, we saw a water-powered mill, running complete with interior grindstone, before entering the second building and the exceptional display cataloging the 1960s. Clothing, social mores, music, football, transportation (including a particularly sweet Lambretta scooter) really made me wish I’d been sentient in the Sixties. Finally, a short and somewhat confusing exhibit about the building’s former use (including a bit about Dick Turpin, the infamous highwayman) concluded our exploration. It’s a wonderful place to get lost for a couple hours – and if you’ve not climbed enough stairs, be sure to climb up and see the last remaining bit of the older castle, Clifford’s Tower!
Settled serenely at the crest of Museum Gardens is the Yorkshire Museum, another attraction of the York Museums Trust. On a beautiful sunny day in York, I enjoyed a cup of coffee from the Coffee Bike kiosk outside, before queuing up to enter Yorkshire Museum.
The museum comprises three floors and has exhibits ranging from the Jurassic period (the new exhibit, which opened 23 March 2018, will run at least two years) all the way through York after the ice age, the Roman and Viking eras, to medieval York. The exhibit has plenty to interest adults, as well as many hands-on experiences for the younger set, and covers prehistory for Yorkshire. I first, however, went through the Roman exhibit – one of my favorite parts of this museum!
Not only statues, but coins, jewelry, and more abound, as well as enough written commentary to make sense of it all. The remains of a soldier’s bronze service diploma was particularly compelling. Soldiers who made it through their service time were granted citizenship as well as the right to marry – two vital privileges. I spent a few minutes imagining this soldier’s retirement before heading downstairs to explore the ensuing time periods in York’s past.
In the basement, the museum houses an original Roman mosaic floor, which visitors are invited to walk across (no shoes, please!), as well as artifacts from Roman to Tudor times – including two beautiful pieces of medieval jewelry. On the second floor is a small exhibit of findings from York’s prehistoric peoples (the After the Ice Age exhibit) as well as a lovely little scientific library.
I saved the new Jurassic exhibit for last and enjoyed a leisurely stroll through. Not only the exhibits delighted me — seeing children and families clearly captivated by the activities and information was heartwarming. One of the stars of this exhibit is the giant ichthyosaur, one of the largest and most complete examples of its kind.
Afterward, I thoroughly explored not only the garden, which was poised to burst into full bloom with another day or two but also St. Mary’s Abbey ruins. The original church was built in 1055 and dedicated to St. Olaf of Norway, but after the Normans conquered the area, eventually became the richest Benedictine order in the country by the time Henry VIII dissolved the abbeys, bringing in £2000 per year (equivalent to about £1,230,000 in 2016 money). Though in a ruined state now, it’s well-worth an amble around, especially in spring and summer, though all seasons bring additional beauty. Here’s a photo essay of the Yorkshire Museum, Abbey ruins, and gardens.
York Art Gallery
Before I drove away from York on my last day, I spent a pleasurable half hour in the York Art Gallery, the third attraction currently available with the YMT card. The gallery is fairly small and has a rotating exhibit of more recent work on the ground floor (20-21st centuries) and older material on the first floor, as well as a very small but intriguing ceramics collection.
You can also enjoy a wander in the small garden in the back after perusing the art collection, or a cuppa and a light snack in the attached cafe. They also have thoughtfully included plenty of hands-on materials for the younger set, including drawing and painting materials, tactile materials, and a reading area (with a sofa, if you need to rest your feet!). Check their website to learn about what’s coming up in Exhibits.
The Skinny: York Castle Museum: Eye of York, York, YO1 9RY; Open 9.30am – 5pm daily (except 24/25/26 Dec and 31 Dec/1 Jan); Adult: £10; Child (under 16): free with paying adult
Yorkshire Museum: Museum Gardens, Museum Street, York, YO1 7FR; Open Daily 10am – 5pm (except 24/25/26 Dec and 31 Dec/1 Jan); Adult: £7.50; Child: free with paying adult
York Art Gallery: Exhibition Square, York, YO1 7EW; Open Daily 10am – 5pm (except 24/25/26 Dec and 31 Dec/1 Jan); Adult: £7.50; Child: free with paying adult
York Museums Trust Card: £22 (save £3 for all three sites) or £20 with direct debit.
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