York Castle Museum Transformation

People queue for the opening of the new museum in 1938.

The conversations about the future of York Castle Museum have always been a central to My Castle Gateway. From Reyahn King, York Museums Trust’s Chief Executive setting out visions for the museum in 2018 and 2019 to the series of public events in October 2019 identifying how movement to and through the site can be shaped in order to interpret the complex layers of history that link the York Castle Museum’s buildings– the Debtor’s Prison and Female Prison – to the wider area. Below Jo Killeya, Head of Public Engagement, Curatorial & Collections, York Museums Trust sets out their current thinking about the future of York Castle Museum and how you can get involved.

Jo Killeya, Head of Public Engagement, Curatorial & Collections, York Museums Trust

York Museums Trust (YMT) have been listening with interest to the ideas shaping the City of York Council plans for the Public Realm in the Castle Gateway area. The enthusiasm and ideas being shared to create a wonderful space that residents and visitors to York will enjoy spending time in reflects the support and fondness our audiences have for York Castle Museum. YMT remain committed to delivering a transformational project for York Castle Museum that will do justice to the significance of this site and collection, be a world class destination within the new public realm space and deliver our vision; ‘To be a welcoming, unique attraction and destination that inspires exploration of the extraordinary every day’, which feels more relevant today than ever.

Like many cultural institutions, the pandemic has had a significant impact on YMT and we have been forced to slow progress on the development of the Castle Transformation Project. However, work has not stopped completely, and in many ways this hiatus has given us time to pause and reflect on the progress we have made to date and formulate our plans for the next steps, ensuring they are realistic for the post-pandemic world we will find ourselves in.

The Castle Transformation project is bold and ambitious, building as it does on the significant input we have had to date from residents and visitors to York. However, bold ambitious projects in the current financial climate are not without their challenges and so we have been thinking long and hard about how we can turn the exciting vision we have created with the public, in to reality.

The pressures driving the Castle Transformation Project have not changed; our infrastructure is still crumbling; the Female Prison needs a new roof and the building is still not accessible beyond the ground floor; there are damp patches on the walls and the conditions for displaying our collections are still not suitable; the visitor welcome is cramped and the roof leaks. Our need to generate greater income in a more sustainable way is more urgent than ever. Above all, we cannot delight our visitors and do justice to the incredible story that we know they want us to tell about this nationally significant site, or to share more of the fascinating collection we hold, without a significant refurbishment of the buildings and more space.

For those of you who have been following the progress of the Castle Transformation Project, you may recall that in November 2019 we developed a plan for the project. This comprehensive piece of work, led by ABA architects and a design team that included conservation architects Richard Griffiths Associates and Purcell Architects provided us with a masterplan concept for the whole of the site. The proposal included;

• Removal of the tired concourse link building which currently serves as the museum entrance and gaining much needed additional space and re-orientating the visitor flow through the museum by creating a new building and entrance at the north end of the Female Prison.
• This new building would be free for the public to enjoy, housing a new café and shop, free exhibition spaces telling the history of the Castle Gateway site and a temporary exhibition space that would allow us to put more of our collections on display. The building would also provide new views to the river and Clifford’s Tower.
• A new castle wall walk, with disability access for the parts of the wall that could accommodate it.
• Opening up access from the south side of the site through the castle wall to the Eye of York to achieve the ‘porosity’ that was high on the priority list of things that visitors wanted to see in the new site.
• Community collaboration spaces, where York social services, cultural providers and community groups could have access to inspiring spaces filled with objects from our collections.
• A fully accessible Female Prison building, with new lift access (no mean feat, involving upgrade of the electrical infrastructure and raising the first floor of the female prison to provide level access)
• An accessible rooftop café with views to the rivers
• A new entrance to the Debtors Prison
• New interactive Galleries telling the story of the Prison, the Castle and showcasing The National Collection of Everyday Life
• Preserved Kirkgate Victorian Street with upgraded infrastructure to allow for improved lighting and sound
• Upgrade of the tired museum infrastructure – power, heating, light – to make the museum far more economical and environmentally sustainable to operate.

This masterplan proposal was initially conceptualised in three phases to take place over 5 – 15 years. A focus of our work over the last year has been to test our brief to ensure we can maximise the use of space within the existing buildings, ensure the amount of space required for the new build is as efficient as possible and to think carefully about how we could phase the project to make it realistically deliverable – for example; looking at delivery of a greater number of smaller phases.

In addition to creating design ideas for the architectural development of the site, we also began development of an Interpretation Masterplan for the site. This plan responded directly to audiences and communities’ interests and preferences for the stories we tell, the objects we display and the way that we tell these stories throughout the museum.

What was clear through our consultation with the public was the level of interest in the Prison and Castle stories, and so two chapters of our Interpretation Masterplan have been dedicated to ensuring we do justice to these important stories. In 2019 we began researching these histories in earnest, looking to the archaeological collections we hold at the Yorkshire Museum which hold clues to the history of the Castle and the Castle Gateway area and examining the objects and archival material in our Social History collection that we hold in relation to the prison history which have rarely, if ever, been studied.

Our consultation with the public also helped shape our thinking about how best to approach the display of the vast, fascinating social history collections we hold that was founded by Dr Kirk. The collection is made up of social history objects, a significant textile and costume collection, and a military history collection. Collectively, these objects help us examine the past and the present by exploring the extraordinary lives of everyday people. This rich and broad story will form the third chapter in our Interpretation Masterplan.

The initial research that we undertook confirmed our long-held assumptions that the history of the prisons and castle, and the research into our collections is a huge and complex task. The past 18 months have really crystalised our thinking about how we want to undertake this research and planning; how we identify which stories we tell, which objects we display, whose stories we share. So many of the social history objects and costumes that we hold and the stories associated with the prison, are really the stories of the communities and audiences we serve. For example, we care for objects that hold special significance for the Gypsy Traveller community, the Quaker community and the LGBT community, to name but a few. The stories of those imprisoned at York Castle are often of those historically persecuted and marginalised. And we believe there are most likely descendants of those held at the prison still alive today, some of whom were transported to Tasmania, whom we would like to trace.

To do justice to the stories we want to tell at the Castle Museum, we want as many people as possible to join us in researching and sharing these stories.

We intend to develop a programme for communities, audiences and volunteers to work with us to explore our collections – to dig deep into the amazing things we hold in trust for the public and to find those hidden gems to share when the museum reopens.

The next steps for the Castle Transformation Project will be to restart conversations with our audiences and communities about how the project develops, to develop plans for inviting audiences to explore our collections with us and to continue to support the exciting plans for the public realm which will breathe new life into this historically significant quarter of York.


We have our next round of events coming up which will explore the emerging design ideas.  Find out more and book.

You can stay in touch with the York Castle Museum Transformation project via: BehindTheScenes@ymt.org.uk


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