York’s 5 best museums, reviewed

Britain is bursting at the seams with fascinating cities but few are represented by its museums as well as historic York.

Shamefully there are a great many British cities of worldwide renown that have slipped by me so far. I haven’t been to Edinburgh, Liverpool, or Newcastle, but I have now ticked York off the never-ending list. Museums and galleries are almost always a superb way of getting to know a new place, especially somewhere as higgledy-piggledy and pretty as York. You can walk the streets of somewhere as much as you like and that will colour the place with modern context, but museums allow you to draw a line between what you see today and what remains from long ago.

The history of York is extensive and eventful. As a far northern outpost of the Roman Empire Eboracum (as York was known then) was used to pacify local tribes. It saw the emperor Septimus Severus die here, and it was the place where Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor before going on to break the pagan empire in two and usher in Christianity. The decline of the empire saw the city neglected until the Angles moved in. The Vikings struck next and claimed the city, now called Jorvik, for a century until they were defeated and the whole of England united under King Edred. The Norman invasion ended Anglo-Saxon control and from then on York grew in national importance through the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, the Civil Wars, and into the industrial revolution. In recent years Leeds has somewhat supplanted York’s place as the premier Yorkshire city but the following five museums, in personal preference order, are perfect places to rediscover York’s illustrious past.

5. National Railway Museum

Under a train in the National Railway Museum in YorkOnce upon a time I loved trains. London’s Transport Museum bewitched me as a small boy and I’m sure the National Railway Museum would do the same to any little boy today. In fact lots of little boys were running around the place completely lost in their element. Whilst I’m no longer little I was certainly impressed with the scale of the place. By the time I got here I had a spot of museum fatigue so I wasn’t reading interpretation panels any more. Nevertheless the gleaming monuments to engineering genius were more than enough to occupy my eyes. The cavernous sheds of the museum house everything from Queen Victoria’s personal coaches, to a bullet train, to the famous Mallard and Flying Scotsman locomotives currently being restored to their lost eminence. There’s also a huge shed full of all the crap the railways have accumulated over the centuries, including the ‘Packaging for the last microwavable burger served on Great North Eastern Railway, 31 May 1999.’, which seems a little excessive. We visited almost as an afterthought, to fill the final couple of hours before our train home as it’s ideally placed when you’re carrying your backpack, and we enjoyed the couple of hours we spent there.
The main shed in the National Railway Museum in York
Entry to the National Railway Museum is free and it is located across the tracks from York rail station, follow the numerous signs. It’s open every day from 10:00 til 18:00.

4. Jorvik Viking Centre

Part museum, part theme park I was unsure whether I wanted to visit Jorvik at all. As the name suggests it focuses on the Viking period of the city’s history and as while you queue to get in there’s a guy in Viking armour to entertain visitors. It’s supposed to be one of the most popular visitor attractions in the whole country so I was pleasantly surprised to find only a ten minute queue outside. Once inside you enter a room with a glass floor over a reconstructed archaeological dig. Screens on the walls introduce historical context and some artefacts like combs and shoes can be seen in wall cavities. You move inexorably along the curved wall towards the main attraction, a gentle rollercoaster ride in a ‘time capsule’ that takes you back to 975AD.

Viking at the Jorvik Centre queue in YorkVisitors board the six-seater capsule and are drawn through a moment in time in ‘Dark Age’ Jorvik. Life-size dioramas complete with terrifying mannequins adorn the 12 minute ride as you explore markets, ironmongers, butchers and homes. ‘Authentic’ smells are pumped into the ride and the narrator chats to the mannequins in Norse, asking the characters what they’re doing before relaying it to the visitor in whichever language they choose from the panel in front of each seat. It is an entertaining ride, there’s no denying that, but it is a cursory glance into the past. Very annoyingly you aren’t allowed to take photos on the ride.

Once you leave the ride the rest of the museum explains how skeletons are examined to determine cause of death and place of birth. Strontium isotope testing and stratigraphy are explained interestingly and real skeletons are on display to illustrate what you’re reading about. Unfortunately because of the ride this part of the museum is squeezed into a relatively small space and the numbers of children make it quite hard to see everything you might want to. Patience is needed! We left Jorvik satisfied with the experience but with adult entry priced at £9.25 it’s fairly steep. At least the ticket is valid for re-entry for a year, if you plan to swing by York regularly. At the moment your ticket gets you entry to the nearby small exhibition about Viking burial and Valhalla.

The Jorvik Viking Centre is in the city centre on Coppergate. The opening hours are:

1st April – 26th October : 10:00-17:00 (last admission)

27th October – 4th November: 10:00-18:00 (last admission)

5th November – 31st March: 10:00-16:00 (last admission)

3. Yorkshire Museum

Jewellery in the Yorkshire Museum in YorkSituated in a lovely park beside the main bridge over the River Ouse this museum was where we ducked in when the heavens opened. The gardens are a pretty place to relax but the sculpture in the Yorkshire Museum is awesome. Several objects on loan from the British Museum (and installed by Kristina’s friend, incidentally) help to display the local skulls in the Roman gallery and then you pass into another room with a gorgeous floor mosaic. I was unsure whether I should/could walk on it and the other visitors were equally skittish, but I took the obvious lack of barrier as an invitation and I it took up. A stunning Viking helmet and a tiny lustrous piece of jewellery catch your eye before the medieval galleries full of carvings in wood and stone pull your attention away. Grotesque characters in stone, and a crosseyed stained-glass monarch amused me in here too. I stumbled across a video that enlightened me on the historic buildings of the city from the point of view of those who occupy them now. A Chinese restaurateur explains how idiotic customers complain about the low ceilings and a souvenir vendor in The Shambles gloats about how warm his shop is compared to all the other medieval properties. Little fascinating glimpses into how the city is moving through time.
Stained glass in the Yorkshire Museum
Grotesque carving in the Yorkshire MuseumThere are a few natural history galleries but these were a little too much like a busman’s holiday so I only scratched the surface here. I did admire a few of the marine fossil displays though. The audiovisual extravaganza promised by the museum’s theatre was optimistically miss-billed but it was a worthwhile five minutes. All in all it’s a very instructive museum that helps to ground you in every period of time it examines.

The £7.50 entry fee for adults didn’t feel like theft, and again this gets you back in within a year. the Yorkshire Museum is open 10:00 til 17:00 every day.

2. York Art Gallery

York Minster from the York city art galleryThis was a very welcome surprise. Our final morning in York began in our B&B near Bootham so this gallery made a good first stop for the day. We got there bang on 10am, as it opened, so there were only four people there for at least a quarter of an hour. The main gallery on the ground floor is devoted to an exhibition investigating the relationship between Art & Music. Pieces examining the pictorial relationship between musical cadence and colour, historic images of the god Pan, works by Sickert, Bridget Riley, and a captivating video of cellist Anton Lukoszievize performing in Jayne Parker’s ‘Foxfire Eins’. Best of all there’s a xylophone in the middle of the room so I had a little plink on that and happily I raised a smile on a stranger’s face. To the left there’s another room but this one’s full of Old Master works. Pretty much, there’s also Jesus Christ with David Beckham’s face in his chest. Edgy, eh! Upstairs are two more main galleries. One with the interesting permanent collection and the other showcasing the ceramic collection of Anthony Shaw. Again there’s an interesting video of Gordon Baldwin at work in his studio which absorbed me for ages.
York city art gallery
The other small room on the top floor details how the gallery will be renovated – get here fast as the York Art Gallery will be closed from the 31st December 2012 until Easter 2015! It’s free and open from 10:00 til 17:00.

1. York Castle Museum

WINNER! I expected displays about York’s Castle. That’s not what this museum’s about at all. We almost didn’t bother going here but it turned out to be both of our favourites.
The Victorian street in the York Castle Museum
There are two halves to this place, the north building was the best, full of various period reconstructions starting with living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms. Next up was an interesting gallery about Victorian social practices, their take on birth, marriage, and of course death. The confusing smell of baking begins to infuse the public spaces at this point and suddenly a small bakery demonstration room appears. Free chunks of scones and teacakes abound and fuel your viewing of kitchens through the 20th Century… Which is more interesting than it sounds… The 1980s set was a disturbing flashback to my childhood with little details like the extractor hood and tray decals whisking me back through a temporal vortex. Downstairs the traditional Yorkshire Dales kitchen gives way to a magnificent entire Victorian street. Consider Yourself dropped into the 19th Century! That’s Your Funeral parlour replete with coffin, a toy shop with creepy wooden trinkets, a police station with a lovely big cell if you’ve picked a pocket or two, a chemist shop you can buy licorice root from, a sweet shop with sugar mice, a chandler’s workshop, a pawnshop, and a grocer. All excellent.
My wife about to be run over by a horse and carriage in the Victorian street in the York Castle Museum
The south building was more varied by far with galleries devoted to the 1960s, toys, Tudor armour, bulletproof armour through the ages, the jail, a transplanted mill, amongst other things. It was harder to keep focus than before, an anti-climax almost, but this was still by far the best of York’s many and varied museums and galleries – not too busy, even on a bank holiday weekend, and it kept us occupied for hours.
Mill building beside the River Foss at the York Castle Museum
The York Castle Museum is next to Clifford’s Tower and is open 09:30 til 17:00 daily. It is well worth the £8.50 adult entrance fee and again the ticket is valid for a year.

Notable mention – York City Walls

Whilst not exactly a museum I would recommend that any visitor to York walks as much of the city walls as possible. They are in great condition, free, the gates (called ‘bars’) are interesting and often host small museums, and the views are often pretty brilliant. It’s a good way of understanding the layout of the city. Oh and did I mention that it’s free?
York Minster from the city walls

Getting to York

We reached York by train from London Kings Cross. I booked in advance and managed to find an £11.50 outward fare with a £19 return fare. The journey took 2.5 hours to York but only 2 hours coming back to London. We stayed for two nights and three whole days, which we thought was pretty much exactly the right amount of time we needed. I wish I’d been able to explore the museums on the walls but there just wasn’t time in the end, any feedback on those will be gratefully accepted!

So, get to York quick-sharp – play that xylophone while you can!

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2 thoughts on “York’s 5 best museums, reviewed

  1. I’m ashamed to say that, when home in the UK, I live about thirty to forty minutes from York on the train (I’m from Harrogate) and I’ve never visited a single one of these, except possibly the National Railway Museum when I was very little. Time to do some exploring when I’m back – the Yorkshire Museum and the York Walls, perhaps?

    • Hi Tom,

      We’re all guilty of that. I’ve lived in London for most of my life but do you think I’ve made it inside the Tower of London yet? Nuh-uh! Why? I have no idea…

      If I were to get half a day to choose some sights then I’d hop onto the walls from near the station and walk clockwise to the York Castle Museum, as that stretch of walls takes in the Minster as well as some nice gardens.’Bang-for-buck’ I thought that the York Castle Museum museum had the best value overall.

      Enjoy!

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