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Inside the Treasure Trove of Whitby Museum Displaying Jurrassic Era Artifacts and Narwhal Skeltons

TextWhitby Museum Main Hall © Blow Your Trumpet Films Whitby Museum Main Hall © Blow Your Trumpet Films
What's on
June 2023
Reading time 4 Minutes

Living North wish Whitby Museum a very happy 200th birthday and take a deep dive into their archive to find out why fascinated history buffs visit time and time again

So you've counted the 199 steps, given yourself a fright in the Dracula Experience and scoffed your fish and chips on the pier. Now what? A stroll around Pannett Park is always lovely, but while you're there you mustn't miss Whitby Museum - especially now they have so many artefacts on display.

Established in 1823, Whitby Museum is an independent museum run by Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society and also contains the Society’s library and archive. After just three years in rooms on Baxtergate, the museum moved to Pier Road, but as their collections grew the Society looked for a more spacious home. Robert Pannett opened an art gallery for his personal collection in 1928, the present museum was built and opened to the public in 1931 and the most recent extension, in 2004, has allowed for even more opportunities to expand the ever-growing collection.

Inside the museum today is a treasure trove of artefacts which offer an insight into the history of the coastal town, all the way from the Jurassic era to the present day – everything from fossils to model ships. But Whitby Museum might be best known for being the home of the Hand of Glory – the pickled hand of a hanged man, believed to have magical powers.

Trustee Colin Pyrah has worked in the museum industry for the last 40 years and he’s passionate about sharing Yorkshire’s, and now particularly Whitby’s, stories. ‘The first project I was ever involved with was the design and build of the Jorvik Viking Centre in York,’ he says. ‘Since then, I’ve been involved in more than 1,000 museum projects worldwide.’

A range of special bicentenary exhibitions are taking place to celebrate Whitby’s history, and how the museum is keeping it alive. Visit 200 Years of Collecting in the exhibition gallery to see which objects have come into the museum collection over the years. ‘Because we’re covering 200 years, we thought we’d split that up into 20 decades,’ Colin explains. ‘In the main exhibition, for each decade we’ve chosen a representative artefact which in a way sums up that decade.

‘The exhibition features those 20 specific artefacts, together with a back-up documentary film [The Department of Miscellaneous Curiosities by Anne Dodsworth] which we’ve had produced. We’re thrilled with it! It’s basically a scroll back through time and as part of that we’ve recreated the original meeting of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society in the old Town Hall with costumed actors. That starts the documentary film before we interview various curators and keepers of the museum to give them the chance to share their stories and experiences over the years. When the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society was formed, the museum was formed soon afterwards. It’s one of few the remaining Lit and Phil societies in the country and Whitby is unique in retaining its independent control of the museum.’

A narwhal skeleton symbolises the 1830s and is one of the earlier objects collected by the museum. When the museum opened in its present home the skeleton hung from the beam in the centre of the gallery, but leaks in the roof meant it was moved over to the wall cases in the Natural History Section, and it’s now too fragile to be relocated.

A carved wooden model of a Maori war canoe from New Zealand was donated in 1845 by Robert Barry, from a firm of Whitby ship-builders and ship-owners. According to the museum, no other models of war canoes exist, so the origin of this is a mystery. The 1990s artefact is a horde of 22 Roman denarii coins found by metal detectorists investigating a field near Ugthorpe Mill.

In 2001, the Society received most of the objects formerly belonging to the Strickland family as the owners of Whitby Abbey, which meant that the museum was able to display some of the items for the first time since they were found in the town. These items and the stories associated with each of them offered a great insight into Whitby’s past. To represent the 2020s, local school pupils have chosen artefacts including a Covid mask and a Freddo.

‘The main exhibition is open for the whole of this year, and there’s a separate exhibition which features costumes through the ages [200 years of Fashion in the Costume Gallery],’ says Colin. ‘The library and archive gallery also has a separate exhibition which chronicles the way in which Whitby has changed through the years, showing a significant event in each decade with important documents from our archive.’

Read More: Exploring Whitby’s Walking with Heritage Trail

© Geni, Wikimedia Commons

The library and archive (which the museum is currently in the process of developing thanks to a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant) offers a closer look at the first issue of the Whitby Gazette, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (of course), Whitby Goth Weekend and Pannett’s legacy. Locals and visitors can, and are encouraged to, help the museum keep the archive relevant to Whitby by discussing local additions they might want to donate. These include anything that falls under the following categories: local history, maritime history, geology, industrial heritage, family history and language and literature.

The main exhibition, 200 Years of Collecting, will be on display until 3rd December, but you’ll want to visit on 10th and 11th June if you’ve got an interest in fossils, as Whitby Museum and Pannett Park will be taking part in the annual Yorkshire Fossil Festival. This year’s festival offers walks, talks, events and entertainment for the whole family. Visitors are invited to bring their own fossils to test the experts and help bring ancient creatures back to life via their artistic skills.

The Society is a voluntary organisation so donations are key in keeping Whitby Museum open and running. You can support the museum’s work via a society membership, becoming a patron, donating, volunteering or leaving a legacy. Find out more at


The jet medallion of Queen Victoria made in Whitby Jet by John William Barker, and presented to Whitby Museum as a jubilee gift.

A turtle washed aboard the S.S. Ethelfreda, donated by Sir John Harrowing in 1928.

A model of the Heinkel 111, No. 3232 – the first WWII enemy aircraft shot down in England, which landed at Bannial Flats Farm Cottages, near Whitby.

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