Small Museum, Big Impact?

Two kings, two gates, one city: when is a museum not a museum but an experience?

On a frost-bright afternoon, with snowdrops glowing and nodding in the icy-breeze, a group of hardy postgrad students from York’s Department of Archaeology found ourselves clambering up Bootham Bar and marching along the city walls towards Monk Bar. Bound together by having signed up for a module looking at museums, audiences and interpretation, our mission for the afternoon was to hunt down a museum and to review it in the light of our developing understanding of things museological. We’d planned ahead: meeting for coffee to plan our visit we discovered we’d already visited what might be called the big-players of the York museum scene, so when one of our number mentioned there were two small museums, part of the Jorvik Group, looking at Richard III and Henry VII and based in two separate gates of the city walls (Monk and Micklegate Bars) the matter was settled. These would be our focus.

A lot could be said about the content of what we saw and the value of getting out of the class-room to put theory into practice and we’ll explore some of this (in terms of audiences, interpretation and access). However first let’s fast-forward to our coffee-bar debrief at the end of the day. As we sat down and pondered, and caffeine (or super-food smoothie) began to work its wonders, one thing hit us between the eyes: neither of these places actually calls itself a ‘museum’ — the word ‘experience’ is used instead. We found this perplexing and wondered why they had done this as they certainly had all the museum trappings — artefacts, information boards, videos, activities for children, knowledgeable staff and a shop! Had we visited a ‘museum’ or an ‘experience’? Was it both, one and the same? When is a museum an experience and how do you know when you’re having one?

The topic of ‘what is a museum?’ has been and continues to be the subject of much debate. Definitions come and go; ICOM have revised theirs at least 8 times for example. Poria challenges the idea that we visit museums just to gaze and be educated, arguing that some seek an emotional experience, that they come to feel. The OED online tells us that to experience can be to gain ‘knowledge resulting from actual observation of what one has undergone’. In addition it can mean ‘to meet with; to feel, suffer, undergo.’ Falk and Dierking in their book ‘The Museum Experience Re-visited’ define the museum experience as something which starts before the visit, includes experiences and interactions during and continues after.

With these definitions in mind how did our visit stack up? We agreed we’d undergone something both informative, emotive and broader than the act of visiting itself. Collectively and as individuals we’d had a museum experience. Could this be defined, measured, and quantified in some way? How did we feel about the fact that the Jorvik Group had chosen not to be a museum but to label their offer as an ‘experience’? Was this not just a tad directive and manipulative? What kind of experience were we supposed to have? These are the questions we are now happily grappling with and would love to know what readers of this post think.

Audience and Interpretation

Today many large heritage institutions appear to be keener than ever to expand the range of audiences they reach, developing innovative and immersive new interpretation measures and events programmes to widen interest in their sites. But is this the case for smaller heritage sites too?

If there is one particular thing that, it could be argued, the Richard III and Henry VII Experiences do particularly well, that is having the ability to appeal to a wide range of audiences types. The interpretation strategies at both sites are key to this success as they tap into the lives of these two historic figures through a range of creative and engaging methods.

For those wishing to access richer, more detailed representations of the lives of these two Kings and their York connections, and perhaps an experience more akin to that of traditional museums, detailed information boards are displayed as well as videos with expert commentary. There are also a small number of artefacts on display offering individuals the chance to view interesting, real-life insights to the historical periods. These objects are spread out around the rooms and carefully integrated amongst the other display features, making them accessible for those who wish to see them, but not too overwhelming for those who do not. Finally, members of staff are at hand to provide more information of the background of the site in a fun and informal way.

The Experiences have also taken much effort to appeal to younger audiences, creating a friendly, immersive heritage experience for families and school groups with children. Visitors can crawl into a pop up, period-style tent and relax on sheep skin rugs whilst watching episodes of the popular tv show ‘Horrible Histories’. There are also craft stations where you can create your own coat of arms or Tudor Rose, and a dress up station. As such, there can be seen to be something for children of a wide range of ages, or indeed adults who just want to have fun and tap into their inner child. In fact when we visited the experiences, we took much enjoyment from trying on replica helmets and exploring the tents.

Much has been written about the emotive element of museums by the likes of LauraJane Smith, and within this literature, there has been a strong focus on the idea of empathy. Perhaps in the case of heritage sites like the Richard III and Henry VII Experiences, the emotions stirred up amongst visitors are closely tied to which interpretation strategies they lean most towards. For instance, the descriptive boards and videos recalling in detail battles and other historical struggles could be parts of the exhibit most likely to spark empathy. Whereas, the more interactive, playful side to the sites can be seen to tie in more closely with the feelings of happiness and enjoyment often associated with heritage sites in reports such as Fujiwara’s ‘Museums and Happiness’ study.

Expanding Heritage Horizons

A large part of the uniqueness of these Experiences stems from location. Housed in two of the historic gateways of the city walls and entered from the walls themselves, via narrow steps and ancient oak doors, visitors are led to feel that they are stepping back in time.

Yet not everyone can take these steps. Due to this same historic nature of the buildings, there is no access for wheelchair-users and little room for buggy parking. The narrow stairways, uneven floors and small, dark tower rooms, whilst part of the special charm of the Experiences, in turn pose hazards for those with both physical and sensory impairments and access issues. Comfort facilities are also limited, neither site offering either cafe or toilets. In the competitive museum world this might appear to be a huge drawback, with implications for visitor numbers and satisfaction, but the Jorvik Group which manages these and other heritage sites in the city rises intelligently to the challenge.

The Group’s stated mission is to provide welcome and enjoyment for all visitors and its continuing aim is to improve access for those with disabilities and additional needs. A visit to the website of either Experience gives a thorough and reassuring explanation of the access situation. The availability of assistance and the types of additional interpretations that can be encountered, such as braille guides and handling collections are described. The clarity of the online material is exceptional and can also be downloaded for further ease of visit-planning for individuals, families or groups.

Recognizing the treasure trove that it has in York’s small museums and rich history, Jorvik Group takes further initiatives to grow its audience. If it cannot get all the people to their sites, then it regularly takes history to them. Outreach to schools and other interested groups is varied and vigorous and each year the Group organizes a county-wide Medieval Festival. York’s Rowntree Park, Merchant Adventurer’s Hall and Knaresborough castle are venues which have played host to jousting and re-enactments, falconry displays, archery and medieval crafts for young and old in recent years, and the countdown has begun for this year’s events.

Overall it must be said that the Jorvik Group and its attractions provide immersive heritage environments for all to experience and enjoy. Yes, this success can be credited partly to its creative interpretive measures and displays, but more than anything it is due to the staff members themselves and the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging insights into a broad range of historical periods they provide.

Authors: Noah Todd, Sally Toon, Celeste Flower, Natasha Anson, Katherine Anderson and Claire Boardman.

(Visit for more information. Jorvik Group also includes Barley Hall, Dig and Jorvik Viking centre, and organises a Viking festival each February.)

Falk, J, & Dierking, L 2012, Museum Experience Revisited, Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, consulted 10 February 2016.

Fujiwara, D. (2013) Museums and Happiness: The Value of Participating in Museums and the Arts. Happy Museum Project:

ICOM UK, 2016, Page consulted 10 Feb 2016

OED, 2016

Page consulted 10 Feb 2016

Poria, Y., Butler, R., Airey, D. 2003. The core of heritage tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 30(1), 238–254.

Smith, L. (2015) Changing views? Emotional intelligence, Registers of Engagement, and the Museum. In Gosselin, V. & Livingstone, P. (eds) Museums as Sites of Historical Consciousness. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Smith, L. & Campbell, G. (2016) The elephant in the room: Heritage, affect and emotion. In Logan et al. (eds) A Companion to Heritage Studies. London: Wiley-Blackwell: