Bosses at York Castle Museum have decided that, after 80 years, it is time one of York's most popular attractions got a makeover. But first, they want to hear from the people of York about what they would like to see happen. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

IT'S just over 80 years since an exciting new museum opened in what had been the old female prison at the Eye of York.

It was eagerly anticipated. Queues had begun forming early on the morning of April 23, 1938, at the steps leading up to the former prison. Before long, they stretched all the way around Clifford's Tower and up Tower Street.

The museum they had come to see did not disappoint. Not only did it house the extraordinary collection of memorabilia and 'bygones' accumulated by Pickering GP Dr John Lamplugh Kirk over a busy lifetime. It also included rooms furnished in the style of different periods through English history and - wonder of wonders - an entire Victorian street recreated indoors, complete with shops, cobbles and a Hansom cab.

When it opened, the Castle Museum must have been a revelation - unlike almost anything else in the Britain of the day.

Eighty years on, the museum - and especially Kirkgate, the recreated Victorian street at its heart - remains one of the best-loved attractions in York.

It has been extended and modernised more than once over the last 80 years. But as its 80th anniversary approached, museum bosses made no secret of the fact they wanted to give it a significant makeover to make it contemporary and relevant for the 21st century. To make it truly ground-breaking and ahead of its time again.

There has been talk of an extension to the old female prison where the Castle Museum began, as part of the wider Castle Gateway proposals to regenerate the Castle car park and the Piccadilly and Foss Basin areas. And, since English Heritage withdrew its controversial plans for a visitor centre embedded in the mound of Clifford's Tower, there has also been talk of some kind of tie-up between the York Museums Trust which runs the Castle Museum and English Heritage.

Up until now, no definite proposals about the museum's future have been forthcoming.

But now museum bosses have taken the first big step.

They have launched a major consultation - one which will last all summer - in which they want to hear from the people of York about just how they would like to see the Castle Museum develop in the future.

The consultation is being held in York St Mary's, the redundant church in Castlegate which is managed by the York Museums Trust.

The church will be open between 11am and 3pm every weekday until the end of September. A series of special imformation films have been prepared, which are being screened on constant loops in the church. One gives a potted history of the Eye of York; others give possible ideas for how the museum could be developed in the future.

Visitors are then being invited to write their own thoughts down on post-it notes and tack them up on special walls displays, or else write their thoughts on a blackboard.

There will also be at least one senior member of the York Museums Trust staff on hand, to answer questions or provide more information.

Among those on regular duty will be Helen Langwick, the Castle Museum's interpretation and content manager.

She makes clear that at the moment, nothing is being ruled in or out, because the process is still at the very beginning. For now, it is all about gathering ideas. Concrete proposals will come only later.

"We're just trying to get people's ideas," she says. "We want to include the voices of our visitors in this journey from the beginning so they can be incorporated into our plans."

Because of that, the consultation is very wide in scope.

The kind of questions people are being asked to think about are: what would you like to put in a York Castle Museum of the future? What stories should it tell? What should your experience as a visitor be, and how should it make you feel?

Then there's the whole question of new technology. Should a revamped Castle Museum make use of virtual reality displays to tell stories, for example?

Ideas are already coming in from members of the public, Helen says. "Some people say, don't change it, it is great as it is."

Others, however, have been putting their ideas down in writing on post-its and pinning them up on the walls at St Mary's. Some suggest the museum should give more information about the long history of the prison and the prisoners who were once held here. Others would like the museum to reflect more of the wider history of the Eye of York.

Comments include: "What happened to York during the civil war?" "What happened to jailed suffragettes?" "It would be good to see more about political prisoners."

The more Helen talks, the more clear it becomes that there is the chance to do something really special.

The Eye of York, with the Castle Museum on one side and Clifford's Tower on the other, is the historic power base of York. Here, on a tongue of land sandwiched between the River Ouse and the River Foss, was where William the Conqueror chose to build the largest of two castles in York following the conquest. That early castle developed into a powerful Norman fortification, with a keep on a castle mound, Clifford's Tower, surrounded by large bailey with its own castle curtain wall - effectively what is now the Eye of York (the remains of the curtain wall still run around the back of the Castle Museum, and can be seen from the Castle Mills Bridge).

The story of that Norman castle - for a time, essentially the Norman power base in the north of England - has never really been properly told: perhaps in part because the way the Eye of York is divided up (Clifford's Tower; the car park; the crown court; the Castle Museum) discourages it from being seen as a single historic site.

But there are plenty of other stories to tell about this unique part of York, too.

There was the tragedy of the mass suicide and massacre of members of York's Jewish community at Clifford's Tower in 1190 - still one of the most notorious events in English history. There was Robert Aske, one of the leaders of the 'Pilgrimage of Grace' against King Henry VIII, who was hanged 'on the height of the castle dungeon'; and there's the part Clifford's Tower played in the siege of York during the civil war.

More recently, in the early 1700s, a new York County Gaol was built on the other side of the Eye of York from Clifford's Tower. It had felons' cells below and a debtor's prison above. York's female prison, stretching north along the banks of the Foss, was added in 1780. Then, in 1835, much of the Eye of York was enclosed by grim Victorian prison walls - walls which remained in place, hiding Clifford's Tower from public view, until 1934.

So there are the stories of all the people held prisoner on this site at one time or another to be told, too: convicted criminals like Dick Turpin awaiting execution; debtors; convicts awaiting transportation to Australia or the Americas. Political prisoners were held here, too: the chartists who, in the mid 1800s, campaigned for a vote for every man aged over 21; and possibly even suffragettes.

There's a case for including all of these stories at the Castle Museum - and even, as part of the wider Castle Gateway project, making much more of the whole Eye of York area, and bringing its history to life.

But first, museum bosses want those ideas.

"We want as many people as possible to come down here and give us their thoughts," Helen Langwick says. "We look forward to hearing from anyone who has a suggestion, big or small."

Over to you.


The consultation on the future of the Castle Museum runs at York St Mary's, Castlegate, until the end of September. The church will be open between 11am-3pm every weekday for you to drop in.

There will also be extra events and activities at the church throughout August - including 'object speed dating, where you will sit with a curator and an object and decide whether it should be included in the new-look museum.

For those who can’t get to York St Mary's, online surveys will be set up and people can comment through the Castle Museum’s social media channels using the hashtag #yourcastlemuseum. You can also send your comments by email to with the subject line Your Castle Museum.

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