Unlocking York Minster: A magpie method

Kirsty Surgey is completing a project with York Minster as part of her research training with WRoCAH. This is the second of four blog posts about this exciting performance-based project.

Written by Kirsty Surgey, School of English, University of Sheffield


Most research projects have a topic chosen from the start. The researcher might decide that they want to find out about the life of Frances Matthew; wife of Archbishop York Tobias Matthew, who gave his substantial collections of books to the Minster Library. So they go into the library and they find everything that they can about Frances Matthew.

My project isn’t like that. It has a planned outcome – a creative performance experience developed from the library, archive and collections at York Minster – but the choice of content is open. I have been picking up interesting things and chasing intriguing stories, including about Mrs Matthew. I have gathered a wealth of material, swooping in to capture anything and everything that has potential.

With varied success, I have started to track down individuals who are remembered on treasures in the collections. A glass and silver gilt ewer – a very delicate, ornate jug – was dedicated to Capt J K Clothier by his sister Edna. Digging into regiment records and census reports would suggest that this was Captain John Keith Clothier a regular soldier in the First Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, killed in action in September 1914. He is buried in France and there is a memorial stone for him in a churchyard in West Sussex. According to the 1891 census, John was the youngest of five siblings; Edna was the second youngest. This could lead to conjecture about the closeness of their relationship and why she felt it was important to donate this toYork Minster. Having spent some time in their company, I try to imagine how Edna must have felt and the sentiments that led to this generous gift, but I can never know. I simply present this story to you; I invite you to find your own.

I am thinking about the way that one thing becomes another. A collection of books becomes a library. A dedication makes an object a memorial. St John’s chapel, dedicated to KOYLI, contains fascinating examples of remaking. On the altar sit two large candlesticks and a cross, fashioned from gun metal. These imposing, weighty items are offset by the fanciful fabric hanging behind. This screen is made from an eighteenth century ballgown, purchased in 1947 during the tenure of Dean Milner-White – a prolific, and for some infamous, acquirer of textiles for the Minster. The green silk depicts magical towers in a fantastical landscape and suggests a life of decadence; the gun metal candlesticks, dedicated as a First World War memorial in 1925, insist that the violence of a desperate chapter of history is not forgotten. A discordant note is struck in the chapel; these are swords beaten into plowshares.

Seeking a performance form to share the stories and materials of the Minster collections, I keep returning to the image of the magpie. Its nest cluttered with shiny things. The precious jewel rubbing up next to tin foil. One may be beautiful, but the other is useful.

Click here to read more about Kirsty’s PhD and the other research being undertaken by WRoCAH PhD students