Where does the failure of a multi-million pound bid for heritage lottery funding leave ambitious plans to revamp the Castle Museum? STEPHEN LEWIS reports

For two years now, York Museums Trust bosses have been working on a 'masterplan' to revamp the Castle Museum.

The aim is to give the museum the kind multi-million pound makeover that both the Yorkshire Museum and York Art Gallery have had in the last decade.

The plans include a new extension to the Women’s Prison wing to create a new main entrance to the museum; demolishing the 1970s connection between the museum’s two wings to allow access to the castle walls behind; and doing a better job of interpreting the amazing history of the Eye of Yorkshire and the castle site.

For many months, museum staff have been planning, researching the history of the Eye of Yorkshire, and consulting with local people and organisations - including the city council, which has ambitious plans of its own for the wider Castle Gateway area.

But now the Museums Trust has learned that it has failed in a bid for what is understood to have been several million pounds of National Lottery Heritage Fund cash.

The Press understand that of the 146 bids submitted for a share of the £50 million Heritage Horizon Awards pot, only 18 were successful. The Castle Museum was not among them

So is this the end of the line for plans to give the much-loved museum, which first opened in 1938, a 21st century makeover?

Far from it, says York Museums Trust chair James Grierson.

York Press:

James Grierson: adamant the plans for the Castle Museum will go ahead

“We are disappointed,” he admitted. “But we always knew that there was a lot of competition for a small pot of (Heritage Lottery) money.”

For that reason, the Museums Trust had never put all its eggs in one basket, and never assumed that it would have been successful in its lottery bid. Even had it been successful, Mr Grierson said, the days when it could have relied on a single source of funding to complete the revamp were long gone. It was always going to need to tap into several different sources of funding. "This (the Lottery Heritage Fund) was one of a number of potential sources of support," he said.

So where does the failure of the lottery bid leave the project?

The Trust will be approaching other possible funding sources - though it is not saying which at the moment. And it is possible that there may be some delays to the project, which was always anyway going to be done in several phases spread over a number of years (the need to keep the museum open throughout would have ensured that).

There may also be changes to the order in which the work will be done. The Museums Trust is already talking about 'work(ing) closely with the City of York Council on ... opening up new areas, creating new public spaces and pathways along the River Foss.' So possibly the immediate emphasis may be on the comparatively easy win of opening up a riverside path along the Foss behind the Castle Museum, for instance.

Bur Mr Grierson was adamant that the long-term aim of giving the Castle Museum a complete overall remained unchanged.

“There is no sense in which this changes in any way our commitment to the project," he said.

So what is the Museums Trust's plan for the museum?

Here's what we know so far...


The overall aim is to give the Castle Museum the kind of substantial makeover that both the Yorkshire Museum and York Art Gallery have had in the last ten years or so.

The revamp will dovetail with City of York Council's plans for a wider regeneration of the whole Castle Gateway area. The council's plans include closing the Castle car park and turning it into a public space; building a new multi-storey car park at St George's Field; putting up three blocks of flats on Piccadilly, with a footbridge across the Foss between Piccadilly and the Eye of York; and creating a park alongside the river bank behind the Castle Museum.

Once the Castle car park has closed, the area around Clifford's Tower has the potential to be 'one of the most beautiful urban spaces in England', says Mr Grierson. The new-look Castle Museum has to be worthy of that space - and will also provide a 'cultural offer' at the southern edge of York city centre to counterbalance the NRM, the art gallery and the Yorkshire Museum to the north and west.

So what would the revamp involve, assuming the funding can be found?

  • A new extension

Architects have already been commissioned to come up with an initial design for an extension of the Women's Prison wing of the museum into part of what is still at the moment a car park. No architect's drawings have been released. But the new stone extension would respect the setting, without being a 'pastiche', Mr Grierson says. So it is likely to be a fairly modern bit of design that gestures towards the building's prison past. "There was a gatehouse to the Victorian prison, and also 'The Drop', the area where people were hanged," Mr Grierson says.

The new extension would house the main entrance to the revamped museum, but would be designed to be as welcoming as possible. There would be things to see and do before you go through the pay barriers, Mr Grierson says, so that 'people can then decide whether they want to go on through the pay barriers'.

The new extension would also be likely to include some commercial meeting space, room for school visits and activities, and some extra exhibition space. And would there be a joint visitor centre to cover both the Castle Museum and the English Heritage-managed Clifford's Tower?

"There have been extensive discussions but at the moment these are still two separate things," Mr Grierson said.

  • Demolishing the 'link' building between the two wings of the museum

The reason for demolishing the connecting building, which was put up in the late 1970s and now houses the museum's main entrance, would be to open up access to the castle walls behind.

At the moment, Mr Grierson says, the casual visitor gets little sense that the Eye of Yorkshire was once all part of a large fortress surrounded by curtain walls, which was the early medieval administrative and power centre for this part of northern England. Opening up access to the walls would make this more obvious.

It may even be possible to let people walk along the walls themselves. "There could be a link between the two buildings at the upper level along the walls."

York Press:

The castle walls can be seen through the gap between the two wings of the Castle Museum in this 1964 picture taken before the connecting building was put up

  • Ensuring the museum tells the story of the Eye of Yorkshire

There are many, many layers of history in this hugely important part of York where the Yorkshire Ridings meet, Mr Grierson says.

At the moment, the museum is effectively a 'museum of everyday life' which just happens to be based in a former prison at the heart of what was once a medieval castle. But it doesn't tell the story of that castle, or of the Eye of Yorkshire.

There are so many stories to tell, Mr Grierson says: about William the Conqueror's establishment of the castle as a power base for the pacification of the north; about the massacre of the Jews; about rhe civil war; about the site's later use as a centre for justice (the courts) and punishment) the prisons); about the people whom waited in these prisons to be transported overseas; the people who were imprisoned for debt here; and the people who were taken from here to be hanged.

That wouldn't mean changing things about the museum which people love, such as Kirkgate: it would just mean reconnecting the museum connected with the history of the site on which it stands sio that some of those stories can be told, Mr Grierson says.

  • Freeing up the 'flow'

At the moment, visitors to the museum are more or less forced to follow a fixed route. One aim of the revamp would be to give people more freedom to roam as they wanted. "Rather than doing a sort of IKEA, where you have to follow one route, we want people to be able to see whichever parts of the museum's story they are interested in," Mr Grierson said.