York Castle Museum and its Vision and Ambitions – Reyahn King, York Museum Trust Chief Executive

Opening up the area, new routes and views, a new welcome for people visiting the museum and new ways of understand the histories of the Castle and Eye of York – all ideas being explored for the future of York Castle Museum. Illustrations: John Christophers

At the heart of the Castle Gateway area is York Castle Musuem, based in two the most important buildings of the area, the Debtor’s Prision and the Female Prision, nestled in the only remains of the Norman Castle walls and housing outstanding collections exploring the everyday life of the last two centuries. Chief Executive Reyahn King, sets out here the full process York Museums Trust are going through – deeply informed by conversations with people who live in York and visitors to the museum –  to set their vision and ambitions.

Whilst City of York Council is working on the area in which York Castle Museum sits, York Museums Trust has also been working on developing ideas for our role in a transformed place. This place should be a wonderful heritage site where the buildings and Castle remains are part of the story alongside a fantastic museum with nationally important collections. As a civic museum our capital project should not only answer our museum needs but also we should use the opportunity for investment to ensure we create the sort of spaces city residents want to see here.

York Castle Museum is York Museums Trust’s largest site. It welcomes the most visitors and therefore its income supports the rest of the Trust like York Art Gallery, Yorkshire Museum and Museum Gardens. However, York Castle Museum badly needs more space to enable temporary exhibitions, a better welcome experience and a bigger café. We need improved infrastructure desperately. The state of our buildings is not what 21st century museum visitors expect: there are leaks and damp patches, our lobby area is far too small, the conditions are not properly suitable for museum collections care and our galleries are often uncomfortably hot or cold for visitors. We have a maintenance programme but these centuries-old buildings have never been closed to allow full-scale refurbishment and that is what they now desperately need.

As we thought about those problems we listened to what people have said in My Castle Gateway sessions so far and in the focus groups, drop in sessions, visitor comments and surveys that we have run.

A series of My Castle Gateway sessions on York Castle Museum was held in October which produced ideas – with drawings to express those ideas – about our site and how we could play our part in making this place what local people want it to be. Porosity as a key idea came through and moving from a sense of the ‘closed’ to being ‘open’ was also expressed.

A feeling of space with a story of enclosure. How can the area reflect the different histories of enclosure, gathering and connection and use this to create the public spaces we need today? Illustrations: John Christophers

We therefor wrote the concept of the porosity of the whole site into our brief for potential architects and this was a major consideration when appointing architects.

How can reminagining York Castle Museum create new routes and views – and cruically new ways to opening up the area’s histories? Illiustration: John Christophers

Our selection of Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) with conservation architect Richard Griffiths Architects and Purcell with their landscaping team Todd Longstaffe-Gowan was largely down to the team’s understanding of the wider site that the museum sits within.

In January and consistently across all our other consultations people have told us they want to understand the Castle and where it is! How can our architects design in such a way that we help that happen?

Illiustration: John Christophers

People also said they want

  • Layers of history hidden: make them easier to see and interpret on the site
  • Foss as a route into and out of the city and open up the riverside
  • Create places to stop and spend time to appreciate the setting of the Castle
  • Proposals to reference the original form of the castle
  • Can the walls be walked? Can a new approach route enhance the city walls walk?
  • Open up the riverside to create a public route connecting New Walk
  • Significance of the Eye of York made visible

We are thinking about these challenges as we work with the Design Team to develop ideas. How can we provide spaces where people simply want to spend time?  What buildings and landscape will reveal the heritage of the Castle and Prison best? Can that actually be done by removing things as well as adding? How can our designs maximise the riverside?

In partnership with the city we intend to open up the riverside currently within the paid for areas of York Castle Museum. Local residents have said they want free spaces to enjoy the riverside. So we are making a commitment that a new building would include freely accessible space for people to enjoy the view of the river. We are looking at whether a wall walk can be created along the current rear bailey wall and how access to the walls could be provided.

In January, people also said about York Castle Museum:

  • Arrival should be accessible and easy with any waiting within a planned space
  • Entrance areas should acknowledge their value as public meeting and gathering space
  • Clear signposting to the various sections
  • New buildings to overcome access issues and level changes
  • Physical change should encourage people simply to spend time in the area

We are thinking about how to achieve these. We propose a large, open, light and welcoming space for our entrance. We are rethinking how our displays are organised: can we have the national collection of everyday life including the Victorian St in one clear location and the story of the Castle and the prison stories in other locations to make it easy to find each story?

Over months we have worked up our vision and aims. The Vision is To be a welcoming, unique attraction and destination that inspires exploration of the extraordinary everyday.

We have five Aims for the Castle Transformation Project:

  • Establish York Castle Museum as the home of the national collection of everyday life
  • Create a sense of place, underlining the importance of the Castle story and the Prison story in the history of the nation
  • Transform the site into a destination for both residents and visitors to the city
  • Provide a welcoming, inclusive, world class visitor experience
  • Secure the long-term future of the museum as a financially resilient and sustainable attraction

These aims have come out of a combination of looking at our existing strengths like our nationally important collections, the challenges ahead and responding to what people have said they want.  These aims reflect our aspirations that York Castle Museum plays the fullest possible role in making this place a wonderful place for both residents and visitors. The aims are ambitious and will be challenging to achieve. Each decision will have different cost implications that we need to find ways to manage and there will be many decisions to make! For example, level access is a huge and expensive challenge which is likely to involve raising or lowering a large amount of the first floor of the Female Prison.

Equally though we have a really talented team and with the momentum of activity led by the city this feels like the right time to be taking this opportunity to transform York Castle Museum and the Eye of York.

I am really looking forward to the next My Castle Gateway sessions to discuss these challenges and our five aims in more detail. This process of discussion has absolutely helped our thinking so far and I am sure it will continue to do so.

1 thought on “York Castle Museum and its Vision and Ambitions – Reyahn King, York Museum Trust Chief Executive”

  1. Visited Castle Museum this week with grandchildren. Enjoyed it very much. Food and cafe very disappointing. Too expensive and most food on sale very sugary and sweet. When planning future developments at the Museum, I hope what cafe has to offer will be more imaginative and nutritious. Not convinced this will happen. I’d looked forward to new cafe at Art Gallery but I have not been impressed. It could so easily be so much better. I prefer to eat somewhere else. A well run cafe can add to the pleasure of a visit but a bad cafe detracts and can leave a lasting negative impression.


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