The American lady I met on the train to York was ecstatic at the thought of a city with so many museums, galleries and churches. I advised her to sample the newly opened Yorkshire Museum and she announced that she would – after she had ticked off the Minster and Jorvik Viking Centre.
The museum, an 1830 Greek Revival temple in 10 acres of botanical gardens, is home to hordes of picnic-seeking squirrels. I was last in the museum nearly two decades ago and I remember it, despite the many archaeological treasures, as a taxidermist’s delight… worthy but not worthwhile.
In late 2009, the doors closed for a major renovation/revolution. False ceilings and walls have disappeared and the window coverings stripped. The slogan for the project, Letting in the Light, also expressed the intention to reinterpret the internationally important collections.
The transformation is spectacular. The part played by the staff and volunteers is especially praiseworthy: to conserve the tight budget, they carried out much of the work usually left to contractors. Curators and their colleagues became plasterers, decorators, carpenters and glaziers. This has given the staff a special glow of ownership – and it shows.
It is best to start by watching the short film, Visiting York? You are not the First. It shows how the city developed through Roman, Viking and medieval times, and is narrated by the somewhat un-Yorkshire tones of television presenter Dan Snow.
The museum is fortunate in terms of its collections, which are shown in a series of exhibitions. The first, Roman York – Meet the People of the Empire, is mounted in partnership with the British Museum. A life-size statue of Mars, wearing full armour and armed, is the first object to greet the visitor.
A huge floor map proclaims the extent of the empire that at times was ruled by Septimius Severus and Constantine, both of whom spent time in York. Frescoes and mosaics back up the information panels.
Learned quotations from Horace and the comic playwright Plautus share space with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “What have the Romans ever done for us?” it enquires – apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health?
The sheer size of a force of 5,000 soldiers and their followers is noted. The central building of their fort – the principia – was as great as the present nave floor of the Minster.
I was also intrigued by the research that proves there were high-status residents of York who were men and women of North African and Mediterranean origin, disproving the long-held belief that African immigrants were low-status slaves or soldiers.
The next gallery traces the change from the Roman city of Eboracum via the rule of the Angles and the Vikings to the creation of the second city of the kingdom. Medieval York: The Power and the Glory is rich with breathtaking objects.
The Anglo-Saxon iron and brass York Helmet dates from the eighth century and has exquisite patterns decorating a strictly functional object. Another Anglian artefact, the Gilling Sword, is shown together with the best-preserved of Viking arms, the Cawood Sword.
Back home from the British Museum is the Vale of York Viking Hoard. Discovered by two metal detectorists in 2007, it comprises a silver cup and 600 coins, ornaments, ingots and hack-silver from as far afield as Russia and central Asia. The hoard was one of the 100 objects chosen by Neil MacGregor for the BBC’s History of the World.
The museum is also home to the beautiful Middleham Jewel and Ring, which justify a visit in their own right.The biology collections have been utilised to illustrate the intriguingly entitled Extinct: A Way of Life.
This aims to tell the story of the five great extinctions and warns that we are in the midst of a sixth. Visitors enter by walking over genuine dinosaur footprints set in the glass floor, before marvelling at the fossil remains of a giant ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pliosaur.
There are poignant reminders of past losses – the antlers of a giant deer, extinct for more than 7,000 years, hang above stuffed specimens of the Tasmanian tiger, a pair of great auks, a passenger pigeon and the museum’s iconic 2m-tall skeleton of a moa bird.
The exhibition suggests that we should mourn these creatures, yet how long will the red squirrel, puffin or even house sparrow survive modern life? I was especially struck by the rare skeleton of the dodo, which could well stand as the image of our present museum-funding ills. Didus ineptus was just too affably trusting and was clubbed into extinction by those it thought were its friends… sound familiar?
What distinguishes the Yorkshire Museum is the style, wit and coherence of presentation. There is no battle between education and entertainment. The guiding theme is enlightenment.
The museum wears its scholarship lightly, and has clearly been devised by curators and experts, rather than by the marketing departments or advertising agencies that have so marred nearby institutions.
It’s good to see artefacts taking precedence over artifice. Labelling is clear, and invites further enquiry. The education service is admirable for schools and adults.
It is reassuring to find a museum that has not fallen victim to that unfortunate virus that demeans children as “kids” and inspires infantile labels near floor level.
I visited during the school holidays and the place was packed with young families and folk, like me, of a certain age. The very young were enthralled, questioning and happy – except for three children, only just of school age, weeping and protesting because they were being taken out of the museum.
As I left, I met the American lady again. She was indignant that she had struggled to find the museum. “The metal-embossed fingerposts direct you everywhere else but here,” she complained. It’s true: the city burghers, it seems, cannot bear to promote an institution with a county name.
The York Museums Trust should act quickly to ensure that this, the brightest jewel in their crown, is easily found, enjoyed and used.
Peter Lewis is a writer and a past director of Beamish, the North of England Open Air Museum
Main funders City of York Council £850,000; Renaissance in the Regions £315,000; Monument Trust £300,000; DCMS/Wolfson Foundation £200,000; Garfield Weston Foundation £200,000; Foyle Foundation £75,000
Project leaders Andrew Morrison (head curator), Amy Parkinson (learning and science exhibitions manager)
Exhibition design Studio MB
Fit-out Sharman Shaw Exhibitions
Audio/multimedia Iso & Freakworks
Display cases Sharman Shaw Exhibitions
Object mounting Sharman Shaw Exhibitions & Stephen Umpleby
Exhibition design Campbell & Co
Fit-out Elmwoods of Glasgow
Display cases Rothstein & Elmwoods of Glasgow
Object mounting Elmwoods of Glasgow & Lee Wheeler
Exhibition design The One Off