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Ten years of York Museums Trust
9:01am Wednesday 3rd October 2012 in Features
York Museums Trust is ten years old today. STEPHEN LEWIS looks back at a decade of change – and ahead to what the future holds
A DECADE is a long time in museum management. Ten years ago, York’s main council-owned museums were struggling. The York Castle Museum, with its quirky focus on social history, was unique but badly in need of investment.
The Yorkshire Museum had some stunning collections of Roman, Viking and medieval artefacts, as well as an extraordinary collection of fossils from the Yorkshire coast – “sea dragons” among them. But the building itself – a beautiful Georgian affair purpose built in 1830 – had become dark and stuffy, all natural light excluded by internal walls and false ceilings that generations of curators had put in to divide up the space.
As to the city art gallery, it was dowdy – a typical provincial municipal art gallery that didn’t do justice to the fine artworks it contained.
The city council, realising it did not have the money to invest in its museums and gallery, then took a brave decision.
It handed over the Yorkshire Museum, the Castle Museum, the art gallery, the Museum Gardens and York St Mary’s, the former church in Coppergate, into the hands of a new, independent charitable trust.
Janet Barnes, a former director of the Crafts Council, was brought in to run it and on October 3, 2002, the new York Museums Trust was officially launched.
Many of the staff who had been working in the council’s museums and galleries service transferred across to the new organisation.
It was hoped the trust would be less bogged down with red tape – and also, being an independent trust, it would be able to apply for funding not open to council-run municipal museums and galleries.
And so it has proved. The last ten years have seen York’s museums and art gallery transformed almost out of all recognition – despite the fact that we have been through the worst recession since the 1930s.
Most dramatic has been the £2.2 million refurbishment of the Yorkshire Museum.
It closed for the second half of 2009 and reopened on Yorkshire Day – August 1 – 2010. False ceilings were removed so that natural light could once more flood in through the magnificent glass-panelled ceiling that had been hidden; internal partitions put in by previous curators were stripped away to open the building up – and the medieval abbey ruins in the basement were reconnected with the main ruins of St Mary’s Abbey next door when windows were opened up to allow views.
The result is a beautiful museum that is fully worthy of the ancient capital city in which it sits.
There have been other notable changes, however. Ms Barnes admits that when she first took over the city’s museums, she needed a “quick win”.
One of the first things the new Museums’ Trust did, therefore, was reintroduce free entry to the art gallery.
Visitor numbers soared by 200 per cent in the first year. Free entry was followed, in 2004/5, by a £445,000 refurbishment of the gallery, which saw internal partitions in the dingy main exhibition space swept away to be replaced by a much more open, lighter main exhibition area.
A new café was added, with tables on Exhibition Square, to draw more people in.
There have also been major refits at the York Castle Museum – with the addition of the Sixties exhibition in 2008, and the extension of the museum’s Victorian street, Kirkgate, among them – and the appointment of a garden manager at Museum Gardens to begin to make the most of the former St Mary’s Abbey precinct, which contains within its boundary Roman and medieval ruins, a working observatory and the remnants of a Victorian botanical garden.
On top of all this, York St Mary’s has, over the last ten years, been turned into a fine venue for the display of contemporary art exhibitions.
It mounts up to quite a list of achievements in only ten years – one which has gone a long way towards improving arts and culture in York. The results are there for all to see in the number of people visiting the Museums Trust’s gallery and museums.
In 2002/03 there were only 390,000 visits. By 2011/12 this had almost doubled, to nearly 660,000. The trust’s revenue income from visitors, meanwhile, has more than doubled in the same period, from less than £2.5 million a year to more than £5 million.
Ms Barnes admits she is “deeply proud” of what has been achieved so far, singling out the “huge increase in visitor numbers” as the main achievement.
“It has been wonderful to see thousands of visitors coming to see, for example, the refurbished Yorkshire Museum, David Hockney’s Bigger Trees Near Warter at York Art Gallery or the new-look Victorian street, Kirkgate, at York Castle Museum,” she says.
As the Museums Trust celebrates its tenth birthday, however, the job is only beginning, she says.
Part of the Castle Museum will close next year for work on a £2.4 million transformation of the upper levels of the Debtors’ Prison wing. Work will also begin on a major new exhibition at the museum designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War. The exhibition will run for five years, and will evolve throughout its run to reflect the progress of the war, Ms Barnes said.
Perhaps most exciting of all, however, are the proposals for the art gallery. The £445,000 refurb in 2004/5 was just a stop-gap. From January next year, the gallery will close for more than two years, to undergo a complete refurbishment costing £8 million.
The stunning Victorian vaulted roof, which is currently sealed off, will be opened up to create a new gallery space above the existing main gallery – it has already been dubbed the “secret gallery” because it has been hidden for so long.
A new gallery will also be built in a new first floor wing above the south gallery – and on the ground floor the gallery will expand into rooms currently occupied by the city archives, which are themselves moving to a new home at the York Explore central library.
There will be a new back entrance opening on to the Museum Gardens and, on the first floor, a terrace overlooking the gardens.
There will be 60 per cent more exhibition space, Ms Barnes says – allowing the gallery, for example, to showcase its world-class collection of British studio ceramicsn – and the gallery will, at last, be connected to the Museum Gardens, from which it has for so long been isolated.
The gallery will reopen at Easter 2015. That is a long time for a city like York to be without its main art gallery. But it will be worth it, Ms Barnes said. “It will be lovely. It will be transformed.”
Even then, the process of bringing the city’s galleries and museums into the 21st century won’t be over. “It never stops,” Ms Barnes said. Plans are already being discussed for major new exhibitions at the Yorkshire Museum in 2015/ 2016 – one celebrating Yorkshire’s prehistoric past, and focusing on the Stone Age settlement at Star Carr near Scarborough; and one showcasing “sea dragons”, the prehistoric ichthyosaurs and other sea reptiles which flourished tens of millions of years ago in the shallow warm seas where eastern Yorkshire now is.
Beyond that, who knows? But what’s for sure is York’s museums and art gallery are in a far better place today than they were ten years ago.
Trust’s decade of achievement
• York Art Gallery
Free entrance reintroduced. Major £445,000 refurbishment in 2004/5, mostly funded by a £272,700 lottery grant, with £85,000 from City of York Council.
• Yorkshire Museum
Reopened on August 1, 2010, following a £2.2 million refurbishment. The money came from various funding sources, including the council, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)/Wolfson Foundation, Renaissance In The Regions, the Monument Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Foyle Foundation, as well as many more smaller donations.
• York Castle Museum
A series of improvements over a number of years, including:
2006: A £300,000 improvement to Kirkgate with the help of a £187,000 grant from the DCMS/Wolfson Museum & Galleries Fund.
2008: The Sixties gallery opened, £200,000 cost funded by the DCMS/Wolfson Museums & Galleries Improvement Fund.
2009: York Castle Prison refurbished at a cost of £200,000, funded by City of York Council and Yorkshire Renaissance.
2012: Riverside Project – the banks of the River Foss behind the museum improved and opened up to the public at a cost of £120,000, funded by Renaissance In The Regions, through the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council 2012: Second Kirkgate development, with the Victorian street expanded to feature more historic local York shops and characters. Cost: £300,000, mainly funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archive Fund. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also gave a grant of £10,000.
Projects to come in the near future:
• York Art Gallery It will be closed from January 2013 to Easter 2015 for an £8 million overhaul. Many of the gallery’s works will go into storage for the duration, though others will be loaned to other galleries, including the Tate and the National Gallery, and others will join a touring exhibition of regional galleries. The revamp will be funded with the help of £3.5 million of Arts Council capital funding, £500,000 from the city council, and a £2 million bequest.
• York Castle Museum A £2.4 million refurbishment to create a new exhibition space in the upper floors of the Debtors’ Prison wing of the museum, where a new exhibition – 1914: When the World Changed Forever – will run for five years. Initial approval has been given by the Heritage Lottery Fund for a £1.3 million grant towards the cost of the work. The upper floors of the Debtors’ Prison wing will be closed for 12 months.