Unlocking York Minster: A living library

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

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


This week I have started a project at Old Palace, York Minster. This is part of their Unlocking Cathedral Collections project and a chance for me to delve into their archives, to rummage through their collections and to find inspiration in their library.

I’ll be using what I find to make a performance and I’m excited to see what I can find.

I’ve spent a day in the archives. Browsing. Surprising myself with discoveries…. A book that falls open on a story about my home town of Carlisle… A very serious little book from 1865 about a particular ‘velvet hat’ (with more blank pages than text)… A beautiful copy of a History and Description of the City of York from 1818 with print that seems to sparkle on the paper and tells a history matter-of-fact and brutal.

There is something wonderful about the serendipity of discovery, but also the joy of the quest. The question that I am starting to consider is how a performance can share these feelings and whether it should be structured around one or the other. I start to realise as I write this, that the quest is the structure and the serendipitous discoveries happen along the way.

So, I need to decide what the quest is for, and how it is achieved.

The York Minster collections include a selection of eighteenth-century playbills. I have started to work my way through this treasure trove of ephemera. These were donated to the library by Mr Hailstone, but there seems to be little known about how they came into his possession. I focussed on 1788, because for this year, to accompany the advertisements, there is a book of reviews. Despite the fact that the reviewer has promised from the outset to be nice, claiming this requires more skill, these are often scathing. One pair of actors are dismissed as their ‘paltry attempt was beneath criticism’ and another actor is advised to introduce a cane to his performance, as his hands ‘otherwise too often drop into the pockets’. The reviewer has a particular dislike of unclear speech and makes a considerable effort to direct the actors to a better performance standard… ‘Remember’, he counsels, ‘it is impossible to arrive at a pleasing formation of words, but by the teeth, tongue, and lips; depend upon’t that when any other mode than this is adopted, mouthing, is the dreadful consequence’. This is a rich resource for informing our understanding of theatre in eighteenth century, but it is the character of the reviewer and his particular quirks that is most intriguing for me as a performance maker.

It feels important that these are objects in a live collection. That they are handled by staff, volunteers and visitors. I have spent time lifting objects out of boxes and down from shelves. I have gingerly turned the pages of aged books. Objects are used for research, to evoke memories and for ecclesiastical purposes. Some are fragile, many must be handled with care and appointments may need to be made, but they are not held completely out of reach.

The people using the collections and archives are making new discoveries and starting their own stories; that’s what happens in a living library.

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