An educational break from the stresses of summer term


Cara Lee recommends a visit to the newly-reopened Clifford's Tower, and the HerStory.York exhibition at the Castle Museum.

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Image by Cara Lee

By Cara Lee

It’s hard to imagine finding yourself wanting some sort of intellectual stimulation at this point in the academic year, I know.  The stresses of dissertations, exams, and presentations, along with the slightly better weather, leave most of us in need of a break, and very soon.

But if, like me, you now feel guilty as soon as you turn Netflix on, something slightly more educational can help to allay some of the panic you feel when doing something even remotely fun.  I’m not just making excuses to procrastinate here I promise, but especially for arts and humanities students, a trip to a museum or gallery is a nice break from work, and could even leave you feeling more inspired.

For most of us weary third years, Clifford’s Tower has been scaffolded for as long as we can remember.  It’s recently reopened however, after a £5m transformation which has created new staircases and hanging walkways, allowing access to rooms hidden since the Tower caught on fire in 1684.  Additionally, the new open roof deck allows views over York’s iconic skyline, allowing you to see and experience lots of York’s history in one visit.

Clifford’s Tower was built in the 1250s during King Henry III’s reign, and was a treasury, mint, gaol, and seat of royal power through the following centuries.  It was also held by royalists whilst York was under siege during the Civil War (1642-9), before succumbing to the fire in 1684.

A visit to York’s Castle Museum is then in order.  Current exhibitions and features to see include the world-renowned Victorian street Kirkgate and an exploration of infamous prisoners in York Castle Prison such as Dick Turpin, all the way to the fashion, social history, and art of the 1960s.

Recently, HerStory.York opened at the York Castle Museum, exploring the lives of 100 inspirational women who have made a difference to York, and whose stories have been ignored.  I spoke to Kate Hignett, founder of HerStory.York, about her motivation for creating the community history project.  She explained that she had become “increasingly depressed and enraged by how few women were mentioned in general history books about York.  Eventually I started doing a five-bar gate count on the indices and realised that it was 90 percent male to 10 percent female,” and so the concept behind HerStory.York was born.

Hignett’s personal goal for HerStory.York was about “providing role models, demonstrating women’s agency, and challenging lazy patriarchal stereotypes “which still, even now, prevail.  It’s not a lie to say that women have been left out of the history books, and York Museums Trust have taken this on board, seeking to change the narrative through exhibitions and partnerships such as with HerStory.York.

I asked how long the process has taken to get the research into fruition at York Castle Museum.  “It’s taken the best part of four years... We were successful in an application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund last year so can now go ahead with a book, educational resources, and a walking tour, as well as the exhibition.”

Philip Newton, Community Engagement Researcher and Volunteers Coordinator at York Museums Trust, who has worked on the content development and project management of HerStory.York, explained that “At York Museums Trust, we have been thinking about our collections and stories and what have been missing or ignored in the past. We identified that women's history is a key area where we need to do further work, and this partnership has allowed us to do that.”  The trust is also supporting projects with the University of York exploring the lives of Victorian women, and is committed to forging “deeper, longer-term relationships with groups” to further increase engagement with community and city-wide history.

For an educational, but hopefully relaxing, break from work, Clifford’s Tower and York Castle Museum are the perfect spots to visit.  You could also extend the break and have a picnic at Millennium Bridge, or simply walk along the riverside before stopping off at some shops or cafes.  Exhibitions such as HerStory.York continue to change the shape of York and reinvigorate its memory of history, and it is important to utilise and engage with community history, to help remember and promote York’s forgotten histories.  And you never know, you might find that angle or inspiration you’ve been looking for.