THE grandeur of York Minster has left millions of visitors awestruck as they have caught sight of the cathedral’s gothic spires for the first time.
The iconic place of worship remains for many as the defining image of Yorkshire, towering above York’s warren of medieval streets.
But its history remains as fascinating as its architecture is impressive, and visitors are to be given an unprecedented insight into how the Minster’s site has evolved throughout the past 2,000 years.
A long-awaited attraction, which is the largest set within a cathedral in the UK, will open to the public this weekend after more than eight years have been spent planning the multi-million pound venture.
The Revealing York Minster exhibition is being staged in a series of chambers which have been transformed with interactive displays to inform visitors of the hidden history of the site, featuring artefacts never before put on show.
The displays include information about a Roman barracks, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery and the foundations of the Norman Minster – the forerunner of the present cathedral.
The Dean of York, Vivienne Faull, stressed the Minster’s site has been instrumental in the evolution of the city, as well as shaping the nation’s history.
She added: “For the first time, Revealing York Minster brings together the archaeological discoveries and the written archives dating back to the 7th century.
“But this is not just a story about the past – it will provide visitors with an insight into the evolution of the city, and York Minster’s central role within that, right up to the present day with a glimpse at the people who work behind the scenes, making use of the very latest technology.”
Work on the exhibition has taken more than 12 months to complete, although initial talks were held with the Heritage Lottery Fund about financing the Revealing York Minster project as far back as 2005.
The end result has seen a radical overhaul of an exhibition space in the Undercroft which had remained largely unchanged for 40 years since it was created during emergency excavations in the 1960s to prevent the collapse of the central tower.
The Revealing York Minster exhibition charts the site’s history from when the Romans first established a barracks there, and newly-installed glass floors will enable visitors to see some of the remaining 2,000-year-old walls beneath their feet.
It also includes new evidence unearthed below the Minster which suggests the Anglian and Anglo-Saxon eras, which remain among the least understood periods in British history, continued to be a thriving time for the city, with its own Royal mint and new buildings replacing Roman ones.
The exhibition focuses on the late Saxon and early Norman period when the first stone Minster was built, with the foundations of the Norman Minster still visible within the Undercroft.
The modern perspective of the cathedral is provided from those involved in both its worship and administration, incorporating a video presentation about a day at the Minster.
The exhibition is the latest part of the £20m York Minster Revealed scheme, which is supported by a £10.5m Heritage Lottery Fund grant. The largest restoration project of its kind in the UK, it is backed by the Yorkshire Post, and will see the Great East Window’s 108 restored panels re-installed by the summer of 2016.
The York Minster Revealed’s project director, Mark Hosea, said: “The process of bringing together all this information about York Minster has itself created a new legacy for future generations recorded in minute detail, whilst the conservation work taking place all around the building will ensure that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can continue to enjoy this magnificent building.”
Ian Milsted, from the York Archaeological Trust, has overseen the latest dig which revealed major finds including hundreds of human bones buried in a mass grave from the Norman era.
He said: “It is wonderful to see archaeology being presented in such a way to allow the visitors to engage with the exhibits. Sometimes even archaeologists forget that for something to be classed as archaeology, it has to have been made or used by someone.
“This exhibition is about telling the story of the Minster, and giving visitors the chance to learn more about the people involved. To have been involved myself in a small way in telling this story for future generations has been a real privilege.”
Entry to Revealing York Minster is included in the admission price to the cathedral, and the exhibition will open to the public on Saturday.