The History of York Castle Museum

The History of York Castle Museum

Dr Kirk the Collector

Dr Kirk was fascinated by history, and by vanishing ways of life – especially rural life. He lived at a time when the pace of industrialisation could be very keenly felt. Within his lifetime, steam travel changed the world, and motor travel was beginning to. Cities were rapidly expanding, traditions and ways of working were changing forever, and many trade skills were becoming obsolete and being forgotten.

On his travels through Yorkshire and further afield, he collected these obsolete and rare survivals of vanishing ways of life. He filled Houndgate with bygones, his collection growing year on year. Sometimes Kirk accepted objects in lieu of payment for his medical services.

By 1918 his collection included everything from perambulators to antique weapons, potato dribblers to a Tudor barge, Victorian hypodermic needles to horse bridles, and it had outgrown Houndgate.

Dr Kirk was determined to find a permanent and publicly accessible home.

Building the Castle Museum

In 1935, Dr Kirk agreed to give his collection to the City of York, but continued to be personally invested in every element of the museum and the display of his collections.

He oversaw all elements of the museum’s building work – from the colour of the walls, the layout of the displays, to the heating system and the entrance fee. Historic shop fronts and interiors were painstakingly restored and reconstructed to create the street that Morrell suggested should be named after him.

The public, inspired by Dr Kirk’s efforts, started to give donations almost immediately.

The museum opened on 23 April (St George’s Day) 1938.


Dr Kirk’s Legacy

York Castle Museum was the first of a new kind of museum in Britain. Traditional museum displays organised objects typographically and chronologically – all the objects of one type were displayed together so that the changes through time could be compared.

However, Dr Kirk wanted the focus of his museum to be on the objects, showing them in their original context. The street, workshops and domestic rooms were all created in the museum to show specific objects. As the 20th century progressed, this style of museum display has become firmly established.

Dr Kirk realised his vision for a museum that would transport people back in time, but his health continued to deteriorate, and he died on the 26 February 1940. His legacy was a museum which brought the past to life, and which continues to make memories for generations of visitors.

Click here to find out more about Kirkgate.