“ Address: Wood Street / Wakefield WF1 2EW / England „
Although Wakefield is much smaller in size than its neighbours Leeds and Bradford it is still one of the principal cities in the region and it is therefore not surprising to learn that it has its own museum.
Wakefield's museum is located right in the heart of the city centre, adjacent to the Town Hall and housed within a building that is almost as impressive architecturally as either The Town Hall or the County Hall. The building itself dates from the 1820's and has two different floors. In 2000 this museum was completely refurbished and since this date it has been fully accessible by disabled visitors with a lift to the upper floor.
There is a small reception inside the entrance but the most notable feature as you walk through the doorway is the imposing staircase to the upper floor. Before venturing upstairs however there are two rooms downstairs that need to be explored first so resist the temptation to climb the stone staircase for a short while.
To the left hand side of the entrance there is a room that seems to be without a specific theme. It includes cabinets of artefacts that have been dug up during local excavations including Roman pottery and there is also a display showing archaeological finds from nearby Sandal Castle but there are also more modern displays of local glassware and other items that seem somewhat out of place. In a far corner of this same room there are even some paintings from local artists.
The other ground floor room is the one that I found the most interesting in the whole museum and the main reason why I was keen to pay a visit to this museum. This room contains the collections of Charles Waterton and the room is set out to resemble a South American rainforest. Born in 1865 at Walton Hall on the outskirts of Wakefield, Charles Waterton has left his contribution to the natural world in a way that it second only to that of Charles Darwin.
Waterton spent much of his life in Central and South America and engaged upon many expeditions into the jungle, discovering fauna and flora that was totally alien to anything that had ever been seen in Europe. He carefully documented everything that he found, adding thousands of new species of birds, mammals, plants and insects to the scientific catalogues. Unfortunately however the Victorian way was to kill anything that was especially unusual and many of his best finds ended up in the hands of his taxidermist. As a lover of nature I much prefer to see animals alive and in a natural environment than dead and stuffed in a cage but I cannot dismiss the contribution that this man made. Many of the specimens that he collected are now extremely endangered and a few are even extinct. Amongst the displays in the Waterton collection there is a huge Cayman crocodile (over 4 metres long) and there are also stuffed monkeys but most of the items are quite small. In addition to the animals some of his journals are also on display.
The upstairs part of the museum is one huge room. A large area of this room is taken over by a display called the "Story of Wakefield". In chronological order you can wander through Wakefield from medieval times through the present day, discovering what life was like in Victorian times or during the war.
During the 18th, 19th and early part of the 20th century coal mining was prevalent in the Wakefield area and there are displays that detail the coal mining activities in the area and how it influenced the lives of the people in the city. There is also a exhibition covering The Miners Strike of 1984.
In 1920 Wakefield had seven different cinemas (or picture palaces) and part of the room has been converted to look like one of the picture palaces. You can actually sit down and watch an old black and white silent film that shows early footage of Wakefield.
For younger visitors there are interactive displays, puzzles and quizzes, its not a huge museum but it's not tiny either; the sort of place where you could easily spend between 60 and 90 minutes.
I especially enjoyed a replica of one of the old streets in the town, which had a reconstruction of what one of the terraced houses would have looked like. There was also a plan of the street together with extracts of the 1861 census which showed who lived in each house. Overall however I enjoyed the Waterton Collection the most.
The museum is open daily from 10am until 4.30pm (Monday to Saturday) and from 2pm until 4.30pm on Sundays and bank Holidays. Admission is free.