Q&A | 'People in the Middle Ages were struggling with many things we’re still concerned with today' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘People in the Middle Ages were struggling with many things we’re still concerned with today’

David Silk, the learning manager at Newcastle Castle, reveals what his role embodies in the run up to the tour he's running as part of the MA conference
Ma Conference Social History
David Silk is the castle team and learning manager at Newcastle Castle as well as being a medieval historian and fortuitously loving a bit of dressing up
David Silk is the castle team and learning manager at Newcastle Castle as well as being a medieval historian and fortuitously loving a bit of dressing up Courtesy of David Silk

David Silk is the castle team and learning manager for Newcastle Castle, and is leading a walking tour of medieval Newcastle as part of the Museums Association Conference programme of tours on Thursday 9 November.

Silk started working in the heritage sector in 2008, where he did a work placement at Bede’s World in Jarrow. He got his first job in heritage education shortly afterwards. Since then, he’s worked at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum, Arbeia and Segedunum Roman Forts and South Shields Museum and Art Gallery. He’s also done freelance work at sites all over the region including graveyards, theatres, bastle houses and Hadrian’s Wall.

What attracted you to work at Newcastle Castle? 

I was born and raised in Newcastle. It’s an absolutely iconic site and one that I’ve visited since I was a kid, so I jumped at the chance when the job came up. Heritage being what it is, I was on a temporary contract at the time, which ran out the month before the job here started, so I also needed the work.

Are you a medieval historian?

Yes, but not really in the period that Newcastle Castle was built and occupied. My MA from Glasgow University was primarily focused on the early medieval period in Scotland and Ireland, so the period between 500 and 1000 AD or thereabouts. I have a pretty broad historical knowledge though, and once I had this job, I set about doing a load of research into the high and late medieval periods, particularly in the north east. 


Can you describe a typical day for you?

There aren’t necessarily a lot of “typical” days for me, but on an average day in term time I’d be setting up a school session in our learning room first thing, then briefing our volunteer guides for the day. I also tend to do a lot of admin, so taking school bookings, collating educational data, creating holiday activities, undertaking risk assessments and so on. After that, I can crack on with other projects.

What keeps you engaged with your job?

It’s really varied, and a really direct way of engaging people with the medieval past. I work with some brilliant colleagues, and because we’re a small independent site I have a lot of freedom to develop the education program in a way that I feel best serves the needs of our visitors and other stakeholders.

Are there any challenges, past, present or future?  

As a small independent site, without any regular external funding, ensuring that the site is financially viable is a real challenge, but a vital part of the role – we want to make sure that people can still come and visit us for many, many years to come. We’re also inevitably working without a lot of back up and with limited budgets, but I think that just keeps you creative.


What keeps you intrigued about medieval times? 

The multitude of stories that it tells. The medieval times were so different from the stereotype that we’re presented with through films and other media, and the more you delve into the stories of individual people who lived in these times the more you realise that. I also love that it’s a period of immense contrasts – it’s both a period of brutal warfare and the era of chivalry for example – the interplay of the ideal and the everyday in this period is really interesting.

What is the most surprising thing about medieval Newcastle?

It was one of England’s most bustling trading ports, linking the nation with the city-states on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In the 1300s, Newcastle was the fourth richest settlement in the whole country, behind London, York and Bristol. Remarkable, given that the town only really came into existence in about 1100, and for much of the time was on the frontline of the war between English and Scottish kings.

Why should we think more about history in our everyday lives?

Once we move past the stereotypes, we realise that people in the Middle Ages were struggling with many of the same things that we’re still concerned with today. How to build stable communities and make sense of our place in the world, how to look after people within our communities, how to keep our communities clean and so on.


Looking at these things with fresh eyes also helps us to look at our own world through a slightly different lens – for example, in medieval “Christendom” monasteries and friaries were not just places where monks lived, but a key part of the social infrastructure, providing care for the sick and disabled, education and other vital social functions. Is this better or worse than relying on the state, or on private charity and philanthropy?

What's your favourite part of medieval Newcastle?

It has got to be the town walls. They’re hugely impressive pieces of fortification and are tucked away in the west end of the town and rarely talked about. In their time though they were regarded as being the strongest fortification in England. As for the castle itself, I think the Black Gate is a brilliant building, and I love the strange “Dickensian” look it has, and the  layers of history from the medieval Barbican, through the 17th, 18th and 19th century restorations all piled on top.

Do you like wearing medieval costume or was it just a requirement?

Nah, I love getting dressed up, so the fact that I often have to is just a happy coincidence. Not just medieval costume either, I’ve been a plague doctor, a civil war soldier, a regency tour guide and a hobbit during my time at the castle.

What do you most look forward to in the future of your role?

It’s a really exciting time at the moment, and I look forward to expanding my role managing the outreach and events offers here at the castle as well as the formal learning offer. At the moment we’re developing a great group of volunteers interested in living history at the castle, and that’s been hugely rewarding.

The tour of medieval Newcastle with free entry to Newcastle Castle runs on Thursday 9 November, as part of the Museums Association Conference tours programme. Tours operate on a first-come, first-served basis. There are 20 places on this tour. If you have access needs please contact events@museumsassociation.org in advance of the tour.

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