The Yorkshire Museum Refit: Did it “Let the Light In”?
Presentation by York Museum Trust’s Chief Curator, Andrew Morrison to IPUP’s ‘Navigating the Past’ Seminar on Monday 25th October 2010
Andrew Morrison explained that the aim of the refit was to “let in the light,” in a return to the vision of the museum’s Georgian founders. Previously, the museum had been dark and gloomy, with many of the windows covered.
Originally, the museum had been a sort of private gentleman’s club, stuffed with objects but with very little interpretation. In the 1950s, though, it had moved quickly from an object-rich gallery to an information-rich one. The public evaluation conducted by YMT revealed that the museum was seen as a ‘book on the wall’: a tired, old, gloomy and emotionally exhausting place – not least because of the physical darkness. The refit therefore removed a lot of the display infrastructure, but touched nothing dating from before the 1970s.
The broader aims of the refit were to protect the museum – which had been falling apart in some places – and to promote access. The team at YMT wanted to raise annual visitor numbers from 33,000 – which had not been enough to make the museum economically viable – to 150,000 per annum.
The project had a budget of £2 million, which could support around 8 full-time staff. A lot of the work was done in-house, but there was also a lot of help from volunteers. The team wanted to involve as many stakeholders as possible, and all of the staff at YMT, including the front-of-house team, all worked together as project assistants during the refit when there were no visitors.
Did it work for audiences?
Andrew reported that the first three months of the refit had been a great success since the reopening of the Yorkshire Museum on 1st August 2010. He then went on to describe in detail some of the successes and pitfalls of the project.
The first room visitors enter – which is the Roman gallery – aims to be welcoming, Andrew told us, with the original atrium restored to physically let in the light, stripped back to the original design. A large map displayed on the floor of encourages the visitor to think about Roman York in a global context.
In the Roman Gallery the YMT team wanted to use as many authentic illustrations and original quotations as possible. They wanted also to focus on some individual stories – there is a lot of information about some of the people in the displays, and so the team put some of their stories in this Roman gallery, in order that visitors were able to engage with these.
Andrew noted that there had been a “mistake” with the object labels, however. The team chose to leave out the dates, because there had been little interest in them during the evaluation. Visitors since the opening, however, often ask for dates, and so the labels have been re-designed.
One of the project’s aims in the refit was to re-establish the nineteenth-century connection with books, and this has been done. In the first-floor space dubbed “The Learning Level”, there is public access to artefacts, documents, and the historic library.
Prior to the re-design there was a feeling amongst people that YMT scoped for feedback – especially scientists – that that the museum did not deal enough with questions about science and biology that its collections speak to. This area, Andrew told us, is one of the refit’s success stories. The refit has made the dinosaurs more visible, and displayed YMT’s large, impressive objects in a prominent position. The ‘extinction’ gallery also poses serious scientific questions in fun ways.
The Medieval gallery was a great idea, said Andrew, but has not been as much of a success as other galleries. The refit has opened up the space, however, and the gallery is set up in such a way that re-arrangement will be a simple process. The problems with interpretation are two-fold. Firstly, the narrative arc telling the bigger story of medieval life in York is not satisfactory for the visitor. This is partly because it was originally envisaged that there would be guides to tell the visitor this story, but now signage and interpretation are both needed instead. Secondly, the labels for the individual objects themselves are not appropriate, often too general when visitors are wanting more detail in order to understand what they are invited to look at and comprehend.
The education section is working very well with school students, and the team are working to find ways to open it up to wider groups, also.
Finally, Andrew described the ‘History of York’ film. This was designed, he said, in light of audience research which indicated that people would respond well to a short film of about this length (eight minutes) to introduce visitors, especially those new to the city, to the confusing chronology of Roman, Anglo Saxon, Viking, Norman, Medieval and so forth. Now, though, the team at YMT are hearing that people want a longer, more leisurely account!
One of the most important things for YMT, Andrew said, was that the re-designed museum should increase the number of visitors, particularly return visitors. It had to make the finances work again, Andrew said. At the moment, it is a success in this. In its first three months, the re-opened museum has had 40,855 people through the doors – almost as many visitors as in the nine months that it was open in 2009.