Inside the Yorkshire museum founded on one man’s obsessive collecting

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It was started by a GP with a passion for collecting ordinary things. Now as it celebrates its 80th anniversary Phil Penfold goes behind the scenes of York Castle Museum. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.

A rather solemn young man stares out from a black and white photograph. The year is 1890, and he is 21 years old, has neat, wavy hair and is wearing pince-nez glasses, supported by the nose alone. The portrait was taken at the premises of Turner and Drinkwater in Hull – one of the city’s leading photographic studios – and the man in question is a visionary, a noted scholar, and probably one of the most devoted collectors of… well, anything and everything. Ever.

It was John Lamplugh Kirk who founded York Castle Museum in 1938 and the institution’s 80th anniversary later this month will be a chance to celebrate his legacy.

Born in Hull, Kirk trained as a doctor and went to work in London before deciding to move back to his native turf. He settled in Pickering, where as well as his daily rounds as a GP he became an eminent amateur archaeologist, rose to the top ranks of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society and became an avid collector of artefacts.

The story goes that Dr Kirk, who was also a keen motorist in the early days of the car, used to visit his patients in Pickering and the surrounding areas, and would often spot something that the patient’s family had discarded.

This was a time when mechanisation was taking over, when oil lamps were giving way to gas and later to electricity. If Mrs X or Farmer Y had no further use for it, Dr Kirk was happy to take it away, or arrange for it to be collected.

Very soon Dr Kirk’s house was filled with collectibles. Then an outbuilding. And then another. He just couldn’t stop and he didn’t specialise. Everything was worth saving.

At some point in the 1930s, Dr Kirk took a trip to Scandinavia where he found – and fell in love with – museums which flouted conventions. Instead of showing their collections in fusty glass cases, they actually recreated the places where the objects were found. The penny dropped. Dr Kirk returned to Yorkshire, refreshed and both invigorated and inspired.

Having secured the two wings of what had been York’s debtors and women’s prison, the Castle Museum opened its doors on April 23, 1938. With a queue snaking around Clifford’s Tower, the museum was an instant success.

The major attraction then – and now – was Kirkgate, a recreation of a late Victorian street named after the man himself. It was the first of its kind in Britain and, while many others have since followed its lead, Dr Kirk sadly died in 1940 and never got to witness the museum revolution.

“He was extremely fortunate to have Violet Rodgers in his team,” says Helen Langwick, interpretation and content manager at the Castle Museum. “She effectively took over after his death, and steered the museum through the war years and into the late 1940s. She was a remarkable woman in her own right. She later moved to Poland where she and her husband were very active in museums and public service. They finally fell out with the Communist regime, but managed to return to the UK.”

To celebrate the museum’s 80th birthday a series of special displays and a programme of anniversary events will be held.

“In the year when we are celebrating the start of female suffrage, we will be able to show how big an influence women have been in the way that the museum has developed,” says Langwick. “We found out that in what was the female prison there were a lots of inmates who were women who had been caught up in the Jacobite rebellions.

“There were others, Quakers, who were housed here. Incredibly some of them made their way to Turkey and attempted to convert the Sultan to their own religion. I think we could describe them today as dedicated optimists!”

Emma Hamlett, who joined the museum as senior curator last year, studied modern history at Oxford and has fond memories of museum visits as a child.

“There are two comments that we hear all the time,” she says. “The first is ‘Oh, I remember coming here as a child, and loving the place’, and the second is ‘Heavens, why have they got that in here? We used to have one of those at home!’

“The world is changing so very fast that today’s technology is tomorrow’s fragment of history. Dr Kirk realised that. He knew, for example, that yesterday’s horse-pulled plough was already the new-fangled tractor and our job is to continue that work.”

One modern example would be postcards, once sent in their thousands every summer, but now all but replaced by Instagram and text messages.

“The vast majority of us don’t bother to send postcards any more,” says Langwick. “In fact, unless you are in somewhere like York, they are becoming harder and harder to find.

“It’s the same with the family photograph album. Dr Kirk went to have his portrait photograph taken in Hull, and so did millions of others. Unless it’s for a passport or visa application, who has a formal picture taken these days? Can you remember when a VHS recorder was a must-have for the home? Or when everyone had a Walkman? When you went to the phone box at the corner of your road, armed with enough coins to make a call?

“Things change so fast, so we are giving a lot of thought to what might be in our collections in the future.”

Langwick also believes that many familiar things can easily slip away without much notice and it is the museum’s job to capture them before they go.

“There are some places where you still get a bus ticket, but slowly they are being phased out,” she says. “What is commonplace today often becomes very rare in the years to come.

“I’m very interested in packaging – I confess that I once, in my teens, built up my own collection of crisp packets – but it is amazing to see how branding can change, and how the manufacturers often change the look of their products at their peril.

“A Victorian would still, for example, recognise a pot of Marmite today, or Swan Vesta matches, because changes to the design have been very subtle. But I love the story of the wartime Kit-Kats, which because of rationing were made of inferior ingredients. So customers would know that they weren’t getting their ‘proper’ snack, the iconic scarlet wrapper was change to a blue one. As soon as rationing was lifted, we got the red packaging back. Stories like that make the past come alive, which is what we are all about.”

There were around 250,000 visitors to the museum last year, and the number continues to rise. This year, Hamlett, Langwick and their team are keen to know what objects they should be looking to include in the collection for future generations.

“I think we are both in awe of Dr Kirk,” says Hamlett. “He stepped out of the conventional box, and looked at life around him, and then he did it his way. You just have to admire a man like that, someone with a passion for the past – and a vision of the future.”