York Castle Museum
Posted Wednesday, August 17th, 2005
Recently I went to York Castle Museum where there is a permanent exhibition of British social, military, and costume history over the last few hundred years. It was especially interesting to see how rooms of different periods were fitted out and decorated. This Edwardian example is one of many that have been meticulously reconstructed by the museum, along with recreated Victorian streets and shops that convey a sense of entering another age.
The Victorian parlour from the 1870s is stunning (pictured below). Decorated in the high Victorian style popular in middle class homes, the composition of textures made me think of Bill Brandt's 1930s photograph of Dylan Thomas. You can't walk around the room but you can lean into it and imagine how it must have felt to live in a time before domestic electricity, when the only manufactured sound would have been the clock ticking on the mantlepiece.
In another part of the museum were displays of things like keys and clock fingers (going back to the 1300s). The clock fingers through the ages were especially beautiful. In a time when manufactured products were few, the design of those that did exist - and their components - mattered comparatively more than nowadays and commanded more attention. Their designs evolved within craft traditions passed from each generation to the next. Outside the antique market, who cares today about the design of keys or clock fingers.
It was strange to see, featured in a museum, household products that I remember from my youth - the Hotpoint Supermatic twin-tub washing machine, for example. The 1950s living room (left) was pretty familiar too, at a time when televisions were made with small bulbous screens and newspaper racks were kept next to the the fireplace, on the opposite side to the coal-scuttle.
It's noticeable how a sense of style was more important in times past. Today this is mostly gone. There's no such thing any more as modern architecture or modern art - in fact there's no longer any such thing as art. Look at the rubbish featured in the Turner Prize, celebrated each year at London's Tate Gallery. Real photography is becoming a thing of the past. The styling of cars has become standardised with no attempt to distinguish different makes from each other except through brand promotion by advertising. We are in an age of "anything goes" with no points of reference, no signposts, nothing. The Beatles would never have made it today - they would be seen as too idiosyncratic, too risky for the modern, planned marketplace.
The superb quality of the displays at York History Museum shows how important museums are becoming, at least compared to thirty years ago when most were pretty dull places.