York Museums Trust

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Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at our museums? We’re Jade and Rachel, and we are documentation assistants working hard on an exciting project to audit all the collections held by the York Castle Museum. The museum opened in 1938, and since then the collection has continued to expand at a rapid rate in order to keep up with our ever-changing society. Currently we have looked at over 60,000 objects in the museum’s external stores, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

The museum’s collection covers a wide range of areas, including Costume and Textiles, Decorative Arts, Photography, Military and Social History, and archival material. During the project we have come across lots of exciting objects, some of which we were not aware we had!

The audit project aims to improve documentation and capture accurate data on our objects in preparation for a move to new consolidated storage facilities. Our project follows a set audit methodology, where we record images and information including materials, dimensions, hazards, object numbers, location and weight. Some of these can be very tricky to capture due to the variety of objects we work with. It’s not the most glamorous job, but finding wonderful and intriguing objects buried deep in our stores certainly makes it worthwhile!

Here’s some examples of our favourite finds:

Witch ball, date unknown

Traditionally used as fishing floats, they became connected with witches in the late 17th Century. They were traditionally hung in cottage windows to ward off evil spirits (you can see another example in the Moorland cottage at York Castle Museum). Ours is made from a hollow sphere of coloured glass, but witch balls sometimes had mirrored surfaces as it was believed that witches, much like other supernatural beings, don’t have reflections. This one found during our audit is a very large example – possibly not one you would want hanging from the window!

Happy Meal, 1997-98

We surprisingly came across objects from our childhood, like this McDonald’s Happy Meal celebrating the release of Walt Disney’s Hercules in 1997. The object comes with its original cup printed in white, red, yellow and blue with the France ‘98 WORLD CUP logo, its white plastic straw with red and yellow stripes, paper bag to hold McDonald’s fries, paper bag to hold McDonald’s McNuggets, a plastic Hercules toy (Meg) contained in a clear plastic bag which was printed with 14 different languages! This object shows the growing global demand for their products during the late 20th Century.

Scold’s bridle, 1600s

Used as a form of punishment to torture and publicly humiliate its wearer (most often women), to deter gossips and those suspected of witchcraft. The bridle consists of an iron frame which covers the head, shaped to allow the nose to poke through and a ridged piece to hold down the tongue. Hinged and adjustable, with a ring and padlock at the front. Definitely one of the more grizzly objects we came across, it is a stark reminder of York Castle’s former use as a place of incarceration.

Newspaper dress, 1884-85

Fancy dress costume consisting of a bodice, skirt and fan, printed with newsprint from an edition of the London Illustrated News from January 26th, 1884 on cotton sateen. The print includes images of the arrival in England of Toung Taloung, a famous white elephant bought by circus proprietor P.T Barnum from the King Thibaw of Burma. Toung Taloung spent a brief time in London Zoological Gardens where he became a sensation, so wearing a dress like this would demonstrate the wearer was up-to-date on the latest news and their dress would certainly have been a talking point at a party!

Chinese foot binding shoe, date unknown

Whilst looking at the Costume and Textiles collection we came across a single tiny shoe. It measures 10 cm in length, 9cm in height and 4cm at its widest point. At first we thought it might be a Chinese foot binding shoe, an aesthetic practice which originated in China in the 10th century. However, the shoe has been filled and covered with some cream cloth which contains pin pricks, so we now believe that it could be a pin cushion, or a shoe altered at some point to become a pin cushion. We’ll definitely be doing some more research into this mystery object in the future!

Dolls in shoe, 1832-35

Group of tiny peg-wooden dolls in a shoe that was discovered during the audit. The Lilac silk slipper contains a doll of a woman and two tiny children, all wearing simple garments. There is also a white silk banner mounted on a wooden stick, with the words “The Old Woman that lives in the Shoe” written on it in ink. A delicate and well-made object, possibly too nice to give to a child!

This just a small selection of interesting objects held by York Castle Museum. Documentation projects such as this one enable museums to discover new stories in their collections, and highlights strengths and limitations, informing what we might collect in the future.