Above: View of Whitby Museum in Pannett Park. Photo: Dilara Scholz and Jaime Rivas
Tucked away in the North of England lies the small coastal town of Whitby in North Yorkshire. Even with only three trains a day approaching this beautiful place, it is everything but sleepy, holding a variety of gems that make an almost ten hour journey from London worthwhile. Legend has it that even Bram Stoker found the inspiration for his famous novel Dracula in Whitby. This comes as no surprise when you get up in the morning and watch the sea mist rise up to Whitby Abbey and its adjacent cemetery, forming the highest part of the coastal town. Whitby also holds the biannual Goth Weekend – making it the goth-capital of Britain.
Its slightly morbid history is what lead me to Whitby, as my research focuses on the Victorian material culture of mourning. Whitby jet is a key location that holds material for mourning jewellery, so I could not wait to go. I made an appointment with the friendly museum staff in advance to get a good insight into the relevant collection and the history of the town.
What else could sum up Whitby’s identity better than its Museum? The Museum and Art Gallery are located in Pannett Park in the centre of Whitby. This local museum holds over 200 years of history, carefully curated and displayed. One could say that this museum is very much a “Victorian” museum in terms of its display policies and arrangements, which already makes it a place of history in itself.
Walking into the museum past the exhibition space and the shop, the visitor will quickly realise that this museum does not pride itself as the “museum of treasures” for no reason! The layout makes it easy to wander around and gives you a good idea of what you can expect when you come in straight away – and with additional treasures tucked away, inviting you to explore and take a second look!
I was not disappointed when seeing the vast collection of Whitby Jet jewellery and nineteenth century textiles – this museum is any Victorianist’s dream, holding artefacts often hard to find or inaccessible in other places, like mourning jewellery and other forms of ephemera that were a key part of Victorian culture. Aside from textiles and jewellery, the Whitby Museum also holds an extensive collection of geology and maritime heritage, with a special focus on whaling and Captain Cook. The reason for this focus is not just Whitby’s seaside location but also its identity as the home of seamanship, training many a famous seafarer, including James Cook.
Visitors interested in fossils will also get their money’s worth when visiting the museum. You will find spectacular displays of ammonites and witness one of Britain’s finest collections of Jurassic fossils. The majority of the items held in the collection are “locally sourced,” you could say, and present a connection to Whitby as a town in one form or another, making it an excellent example for a local museum that sheds light on the history of Whitby in the wider context of Great Britain and the world.
One of the curious stars of the collection is in fact part of the “secret collection”: The Ripley Cabinet of Curiosities, containing a variety of objects collected by Dr Ripley (1788-1856). This museum does not fall short on its collection of curiosities, also featuring the “Hand of Glory”, a mummified, severed hand surrounded by stories (tracing back to eighteenth century) that the museum staff will be happy to tell you about.
My personal highlights were the many examples of Victorian hair jewellery, of which many large museum often only hold one piece.
Despite the variety in the collections, the museum is well organised and has many stories to tell - making you want to come back as often as you can!
Through my research appointment, I was lucky enough to really get “hands on” in the museum. I was greeted by the friendly staff who really accommodated my research endeavours and showed me artefacts I would not have been able to find anywhere else. I came back two days in a row, making use of the in-house library and archive on the first day, viewing some artefacts and the rest of the museum on the second. Accommodating as the staff were, they even took separate items out of their storage for me to hold and look at properly – a truly unique and valuable experience that I will never forget. The conversations held here, were inspiring and pushed my research further.
Whitby Museum is an institution with a real identity and character, with a real passion for its history, carried by the friendly staff – many of them being volunteers who pour their heart and energy into this museum.
Location: YO21 1RE, North Yorkshire – Pannett Park, 10 minutes away from Whitby train station
Children Free (under 18 years old in full time education)
Student £3.50 (on production of an NUS card or ID)
School Parties £5.00 per accompanying adult Children – free
Groups £3.50 per person (Ten or more people)
All admission fees are valid for 12 months – you can return anytime!
Opening Hours: 9.30 – 4.30 throughout the year (currently closed due to COVID-19)
Image Credits: Dilara Scholz and Jaime Rivas
Helen Muller: Whitby Jet, Oxford: Shire Publications (2009)
Ian Thompson and Roger Frost: Secret Whitby, Stroud: Amberley Publishing (2016)
Bram Stoker: Dracula, London: Penguin (First published 1897)
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Dilara was born in Germany and moved to England in 2013 to study History and Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London where she has stayed ever since - now doing a PhD on the material culture of mourning under supervision of Professor Jane Hamlett. Her blog https://lilacandbombazine.wordpress.com/ features insights into her research and more information on her time in Whitby.