Slums, Shopping and Spectacle: The Kirkgate Victorian Street

The post is cross-posted from my review on the Journal of Victorian Culture Online.

I have always relished stepping onto Kirkgate, the replica, indoor Victorian street at York Castle Museum. When I first visited six years ago, the street had recently undergone its first major redevelopment project. Last year, it received a further £300,000 reworking, focussing on creating more authentic shop spaces, a new slum area, and incorporating more of the city’s chocolate heritage.

Fig. 1. The grocer’s shop at the updated Kirkgate street, York Museums Trust.

The street was originally created by and named after John Kirk in the 1930s, and the buildings of the main street remain where he carefully planned and placed them. Kirk’s priority when creating the street was to display everyday items in everyday settings, contextualising and adding value to the artefacts in his collection.

The initial reworking of the street in 2006 saw the repainting of many of the shops, the creation of a Victorian school space, and the addition of a sound and lighting system, which continually rotates from day to night, through dusk and dawn and is accompanied by street calls, thunder storms and footsteps. Peter Lewis, the former Director of Beamish, writing in The Museums Journal, saw these changes as negative, arguing that they made Kirk’s street shallow and vulgar.[i]

Aside from the amusing fact that the shops stay open overnight, and that the passing of time and changes of weather have no effect on the inhabitants of the street, I would generally disagree. These additions to the experience of the street awaken the imagination, and add a dynamic element to the space.

However, I do think that Lewis would be better pleased by the more recent changes. There have been two major changes in the 2012 update that I believe have had a significant positive effect on the street’s historical and educational value.

Firstly, each of the shops has been renamed and redesigned, following extensive research on the part of the curatorial team. Each shop is now representative of a real shop that existed in York in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and each has on display relevant items from the museum’s collection. Some, like the Banks Music Shop, are still trading today. While the previous incarnation of the street was rather generic, the incorporation of these real historical facts, names and stories adds a sense of both historical and local value. Other new shops include a taxidermist, a chemist, a milliner and a draper.

Fig. 2. Bank’s Music Shop c. 1910, Ryedale Folk Museum.

Available in carts around the street is The Trader’s Review, a guide to each of the new shops presented in the style of a nineteenth-century newspaper, complete with contemporary images, advertisements and historical information about the different types of retailer and their real historical equivalents.

Secondly, the addition of the slums area adds more social depth to the street. The focus of the street used to be firmly on retail and middle-class life. In contrast the new Rowntree Snicket incorporates the grubbier, poorer and darker side of living in nineteenth-century York. This back alley runs behind the shops, and incorporates a one room domestic space, complete with crying child, cracking plasterwork and damp walls. Out on the narrow street there are ripped and overlaid posters and advertisements, a pawnbrokers shop and dirty washing.

Fig. 3. The new Rowntree Snicket, York Museums Trust.

I found the cocoa house, which both emphasises York’s links to the chocolate industry and houses a magic lantern show, to be a disappointment. The magic lantern show is simply a modern projected slideshow, telling the stories of characters from the street. The projected videos of the ‘ghosts’ of prisoners in the museum’s prison dungeons are far more engaging, and present emotive human stories. Similarly, the Terry’s sweet shop further down the street, where real sweets can be purchased, provides a more active and tangible link to the chocolate industry in York.

Nonetheless, the biggest disappointment for me was the costumes worn by the living history staff who roam the streets and work in the shops. The black dresses and the white elasticated mob-caps barely covered modern hair-dos and jarred with their well-researched setting. They look like homemade outfits from school Victorian days, and certainly do not seem worthy of an educational visitor attraction that has just undergone a £300,000 makeover. Retaining these stereotypical dressing-up box images of Victorian clothing maintains a myth and obscures a reality.

The staff behind the redevelopment of Kirkgate would no doubt argue that obtaining authentic costumes would be too costly, and would not add to the visitor experience. I would disagree on both points. In a world where film and television representations of the past have developed relatively high levels of authenticity, at least in a visual sense, the general public are more aware of what ‘looks right’. Confusing this image with quaint and stale costumes cannot be considered beneficial in an institution that the public look towards as a historical authority. It is regrettable that many costume dramas are more historically accurate than museum living history staff.

Furthermore, having worked with museums to create authentic historical clothing for over 5 years, I know that authenticity does not necessarily mean expense. While museum funds are certainly tight, obtaining authentic reproduction garments is no more costly than obtaining their clichéd costume counterparts.

The costumes aside, Kirk’s vision of a contextual backdrop for his collection has been maintained. The work on the street itself has had a thoroughly positive effect, adding to both the educational and historical value. Although the street does not provide a fully immersive experience- and I would argue that it should not be approached in this way-it does provide a socially and culturally broad representation of life in a geographically and temporally specific location.

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This entry was published on February 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm and is filed under Museums, Nineteenth Century, Shopping and Retail History. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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