Museum Visit: York Castle Museum

Nineteenth century undergarments hang on the line in Kirkgate Street, York Castle Museum's recreation Victorian street

In early July, I had the opportunity to visit York to attend a conference at York University on the topic of Theatre and Ghosts. There were a number of papers presented that focused on costume related topics, notably on theatre costumes in the collection of the V&A, the work of wardrobe staff backstage at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the legend of a Victorian ghost at the Bristol Old Vic, who infamously appears to living members of the theatre staff in hoopskirts.

The York Castle Museum

With my mind reeling from twenty papers and four keynotes in two days, I relished in a relaxing visit to the York Castle Museum, ‘one of Britain’s leading museums of every-day life,’ which boasts a sizable costume and textile collection.  I am ever eager to visit social history museums in which costume history is a feature, and to immerse myself in the differing modes of presentation and curation in these galleries. At York Castle, the exhibits are fairly traditional – period rooms and recreations, collections of material artefacts by theme or chronologically, displayed in a manner friendly to visitors of all ages and interest levels.

Galleries dedicated to the history of the British home give vacuum cleaners a place of prominence. There were also exhibits on laundry, bathing and the changing technology of the kitchen.

Despite the somewhat predictable format of the museum, and the one-way system that sets visitors on a restricted path through the galleries – I was utterly charmed by the museum and delighted by the wealth of material and information on view.  Firstly, I was charmed by the friendly and warm staff of the visitor’s desk, who kindly offered me free entry with my Museum of London staff ID.  When I told them I worked in the costume department, they proudly told me of the costume highlights on exhibit and shared good memories of having been on a tour of the textile storage facilities.

Overview of gallery exhibit on life stages and rituals and in particular on the dress and artefacts associated with them.

Because I so enjoyed my visit, and photographed the museum somewhat compulsively, I bring you a photo essay of the costume highlights. York Castle Museum may not be at the forefront of contemporary exhibition design or display technology,  but it has heart and it has what all great social history museums should – a fabulous collection that nearly speaks for itself – but shines because of the work of knowledgeable and dedicated curators.  If you are heading for York, do go and visit this museum!  But in the meantime step back in time through  my captioned snapshots and have a peek at what the York Castle Museum has been wise enough to collect since it opened in 1938!

Display of Victorian mourning dress for the whole family.

Accoutrments of Victorian mourning.

A timeline of British bridal fashion

The window of a second hand clothing shop in Kirkgate Street, the museum's immersive Victorian shopping street exhibit.

More window shopping on Kirkgate Street.

Early 19th Century fashions in a period room setting.

Twentieth century evening gowns in a surreal display setting.

One of the liveliest displays, featuring British seaside garb of the early to middle twentieth century.

No caption necessary!

Fittingly, the 1960s exhibit had the most modern feel and a quirky exhibition design that provided a more contemporary museum experience of nostalgic reflection.

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