Yorkshire Museum Transformed In £2 million Letting In The Light Plan

By Ben Miller | 29 January 2009
A picture of a plan of the inside of a museum showing a coloured sketch of an area with people strolling around it

Yorkshire Museum will undergo a dramatic redesign at the end of 2009

In the early 1980s, the Yorkshire Museum decided to devote its Grade-I listed York home to archaeology, presenting the city’s vast Roman heritage in a style typical of the period and reflecting the fashionable status exotic finds held at the time.

More than 20 years later, a £2 million project by York Museums Trust, Letting in the Light, is finally giving the place a redesign.

The entire interior of the museum will be refurbished in a nine-month overhaul beginning in November, tearing down several walls and replacing all those artefacts with some of the 1.5 million science objects it holds in storage, revitalising the attraction for locals who have tired of seeing the same old slates.

A picture of a logo with green, pink and blue bubbles which says letting in the light

The project aims to unlock space in the museum the public has rarely explored

“It was one of those things in the 1970s when the world went archaeology mad,” acknowledges Andrew Morrison, the curator who has spent as much time answering questions from intrigued reporters as he has devising redesign plans today.

“Up to that point the museum was actually a science museum, with the archaeology museum in a different building. And when Tutankhamen’s treasures came to London and all that sort of thing, the archaeology took over the museum and the science was relegated to stores.

“We set out with a plan. We had known for a while that the building itself is crying out for work doing on the infrastructure, but also the feedback we had been getting from the visitors over the last four or five years has been ‘actually, we’ve been here before, and it hasn’t changed in 20-odd years.”

A picture of a gold jewel

Middleham Jewel 2. © York Museums Trust. Pic: Joel Chester Fildes

Some of the public space will be opened up for the first time as a host of unusual natural biological rarities are unleashed, from dinosaurs to dodos and whales. “The idea is to give more than a third of the museum to that side of the house in a permanent gallery,” says Morrison.

“Nowadays it’s science that probably gives us the most interesting stories about our archaeological objects, so we’re trying to really get the science bit of it to underline the historical culture of everything else.”

The beauty of the classical Georgian building has also been kept hidden by dated displays which “didn’t reflect the collections and what people are interested in,” says Morrison. Establishing a dialogue with visitors has formed a vital part of the process.

“The project was really focused on visitors, so we asked them what they wanted to see. They love being involved, because It’s not often they get to set the agenda.

A picture of a skeletal vertebrae and head of a creature

A moa is among the natural biological artefacts being introduced. © York Museums Trust

“Part of it is about how we explain things to people – because I think some of the museums that I go to work on a plan when you’re sitting in an office with a designer, and then the subtleties are perhaps missed by the public or people get confused.

"So I think one of the things we’re really keen to do is have somebody at the front door telling people how to use the museum, or make it so intuitive that it works like that. I’m very confident we’ll do a grand job.”

The Department for Culture Media and Sport and Renaissance in the Regions donated £200,000 each, alongside £300,000 from the Monument Trust and a pledge of £800,000 from York Council if the museum can match that figure.

“We started really working on it about three or years ago, but we started applying for money from the various trusts and foundations in early 2008,” says Morrison.

“There’s a lot of inviting people to the museum and showing them round, letting them play with objects, because our thing is we want everybody to come to the museum and not just see things in cases – actually get your hands on materials and access it in whatever way you think is suitable. Sometimes all funding bodies see is paperwork, so we were quite keen to say ‘look, come on, have a play.”

A picture of Mars, a roman statue of a soldier

A statue of Mars, the God of War, will greet visitors. © York Museums Trust

The new set-up will be divided into three sections created through public and professional consultations, resulting in interactive touring methods being offered to viewers. York: The Power and the Glory will examine the medieval past of the city, while Extinct: A Way of Life enters a colourful world of disappeared species and Eboracum explores the power of the Roman empire, complementing the statue of the Roman God of War, Mars, which will be shifted to the front of the museum.

“Perhaps the picture in peoples’ minds of who a Roman was isn’t quite accurate,” ponders Morrison. “When I grew up at school you had this picture of a white person with a roman nose dressed in a red skirt.

“The statue has always just been stuck in a corner or whatever, and when we did a survey of Romano-British sculpture we realised that this is the best we’ve got in the whole country, we should be doing more about it. It’s going to welcome visitors with a big smile – you know, ‘welcome to Roman Yorkshire.’”

As the detailed design stages begin, Morrison intends to keep the public heavily involved. “If we buy them in now, hopefully they’ll support it when it’s opened,” he reasons.

A picture of a helmet

York Helmet. © York Museums Trust

“We get a lot of comments on the negative points about the museum, but then suddenly they leap into ‘it’s a great place, we love it, but the infrastructure doesn’t support our visit.’ The labels are wrong, the reading levels are too high or low, there’s not enough seats – once you get beyond that then you start talking about the content and you realise that there’s such a desire to see more science, more culture, more history.

“All the permanent galleries bar one are dedicated to archaeology, but done in a way that was current in the early 1980s, which is very much about presenting archaeology as a history of the city, and it’s quite formulaic.

“What we want to try and express is the more interesting side of it, perhaps. The roman galleries will feature very heavily on the people, because now science will tell us much more about them.

“I’ve only been here four years and it’s one of those museums where it’s just got such a fantastic strength to it that you think ‘I just want to do something to do it’. It’s great – I love it.”