King of the castle - Museums Association

King of the castle

The chief executive of York Museums Trust, Reyahn King, talks to Eleanor Mills about her ambitious plans. Photography by Phil Sayer
York Castle Museum sits opposite the near-950-year-old motte and bailey of the old keep of York Castle, and is housed in a former debtor’s prison. It’s a historically significant site, like much of the city of York. So it is just as well that Reyahn King, the chief executive of York Museums Trust (YMT), has a background in history.

“I like to get people excited about everyday objects by viewing them through the magic lens of history,” says King, who is responsible for four sites, including York Castle Museum, as the head of YMT.

Since she’s been at the trust, King has seen York Art Gallery praised for its £8m renovation and addition of the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA). But she is not resting on her laurels – her plans don’t stop there.

YMT comprises York Castle Museum, York Art Gallery, Yorkshire Museum and Gardens and York St Mary’s, four sites that are scattered across the city. King is excited about what the future holds for all of them.

The trust recently announced a scheme to redevelop the area outside York Castle Museum into an appealing public space. “It does not do the historical significance of the site justice at the moment,” says King, “but recently the council have agreed on an exciting new project for this end of the city, called the Castle Gateway. It will completely redevelop this area, there’ll be a bridge over the river Foss, the car park will go, and we’ll create more public space.”

Being such a historically important site it’s a shame that the area hasn’t been put to better use before. This new development will change its appearance completely, while improving the museum’s facilities by adding a new link and enhancing visitor flow. There will also be a space behind the museum for people to relax by the river. Work on the Castle Gateway is due to start on site in 2020 or 2021.

“I love making things happen,” King says. “As a cultural venue, we are able to bring added value to what the council want to do.”

Cultural connections

King is obviously keen that YMT makes waves, but a very different kind of wave struck York in late 2015. Floods swamped much of the city, including the much-loved Jorvik Viking Centre.

But there’s a culture of collaboration in the city, and King has helped the Jorvik centre put on a display in YMT’s deconsecrated church of York St Mary’s. This has given the organisation a public face while it is entirely renovated before it reopens in April.

The floods affected venues across the city, and it was reported that visitor figures at the newly redeveloped York Art Gallery had not hit their first year’s target. But King is confident that this was due to decreased access because of the floods, not the fact that the gallery introduced an entry fee.

“What was most damaging was the perception that York was closed for business. The usual flow of visits to York did not pick up until Easter 2016.”

Having worked in museums for 25 years, King knows the ropes well, but hasn’t lost any enthusiasm for the sector. And her move to YMT has given her even more enthusiasm for bringing about change in museums. In fact, the Museums Association has recruited her to be part of the Museums Taskforce, which is reviewing the opportunities and challenges facing the sector with the aim to help museums adapt in an increasingly difficult funding environment.

Before moving to York, King was the head of the West Midlands for the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). “I think it was actually really important to step away from working in museums for a few years,” she says. “The HLF is a great place to work – it’s very analytical, with decisions being made in a really positive intelligent way.”

King has a background in interpretation, having worked as a curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. This experience showed her the benefits of being experimental, which she encourages her staff to do across the York sites.

“The staff here have such talent they just need to know that they can try things out.” A recent example is the Shaping the Body exhibition at York Castle Museum, which the curator designed with a magazine-type approach with facts, interactives and a catwalk, examining approaches to body shape throughout the centuries.
That’s just one section of the enormous scope of York Castle Museum. The venue’s attractions include Kirkgate, the first recreated Victorian street in any UK museum, which was installed in 1938. Naturally, the museum is a big hit with families and its galleries include displays on domestic interiors throughout history and first world war trenches. It also has cavernous old debtor’s cells, which have been enlivened with video projections of prisoners.

Making an impact

York Museums Trust is supported in its work by 350 volunteers, some of whom help in the shops in Kirkgate.

“My enthusiasm for growing volunteer work has very much come out of seeing what fantastic volunteer-led projects the HLF have funded,” King says. “I’m really keen on person-to-person interpretation and on developing our volunteer offer here.”

King wants the museum service to have a big impact on local communities. She is particularly proud of the diversity of the people that have put on exhibitions at York Castle Museum’s community gallery, which have ranged from Quaker groups to offenders.

“There’s a lot of great engagement that’s led by communities. We like to let them develop exhibitions themselves because it’s a really powerful way to work. It’s about turning the museum around and letting people come to us and do what they want to do, rather than doing traditional outreach work taking objects to people.”
King clearly wants to break down barriers whether they are related to communities, diversity, or YMT’s collections.

“I want to change the public understanding of ceramics with CoCA at York Art Gallery,” she says. To help facilitate this, King and her team initiated the preconception-busting Twitter hashtag #thisisnotavase.

“York is not the most diverse part of Yorkshire, but our visitors come from all over the UK and the world to see our attractions. It’s about looking at who our visitors are and making sure that they all feel, on an individual basis, welcome and that we are relevant to them.”

King says that her time at the HLF helped her realise all the ways that museums and galleries can have an impact on people’s lives. She says that part of YMT’s mission is around biodiverse heritage, with reference to the picturesque gardens that surround Yorkshire Museum. “I often detour through the gardens when I go between sites,” she says.

“We have worked really hard over the last few years to reinstate some of the historic planting and its resident biodiversity. There’s a very rare little iridescent green beetle called the Tansy Beetle that lives in the gardens. They are so pretty they are known locally as the Jewel of York.”

King clearly loves her new environment. “We work with amazing objects here, across an amazing site with amazing stories, and we have fantastic staff,” she says. York Art Gallery was shortlisted for the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year prize 2016, and won a Riba National Award for its refurbishment.

The gallery has also been recognised by Kids in Museums, which has named it UK Family Friendly Museum of the Year. And it has been nominated for the European Museum of the Year Award, which will be announced in May, and York Castle Museum has been voted as one of the top 10 UK museums by TripAdvisor.

“That means visitors are satisfied with the quality of interpretation and the magic of the environment,” says King. “We’ve won lots of awards, which importantly recognise the commitment and talent of staff, especially the success of the redeveloped art gallery, and it’s all been really, really fun. It’s been a good year actually.”
Reyahn King at a glance
Reyahn King studied modern history at Oxford University, and went on to do an MA in history of art at Boston University.

She became the chief executive of York Museums Trust in 2015 after leaving the Heritage Lottery Fund, where she was head of the West Midlands.

Prior to that King was the director of art galleries at National Museums Liverpool from 2007 to 2012, and the head of exhibitions and interpretation at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from 2003 for four years.

She holds a Fellowship of the Museums Association (MA), is a Clore Fellow, and is part of the Museums Taskforce, convened by the MA.
York Museums Trust at a glance
York Museums Trust comprsises four sites: Yorkshire Museum and Gardens, York Castle Museum, York Art Gallery and the deconsecrated church of York St Mary’s.

York Art Gallery underwent an £8m renovation that was completed in 2015. It includes the new Centre of Ceramic Art.

The trust’s annual turnover is £6m, which includes money from York City Council, Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The trust attracts about 450,000 visitors a year across its four sites.

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