Curating History: The Dedicated Keepers of Warley’s Phone Box Museum | History Hit

Curating History: The Dedicated Keepers of Warley’s Phone Box Museum

Celeste Neill

13 Jun 2023
Warley’s Unique Phone Box Museum
Image Credit: Chris and Paul Czainski

History Heroes

In our History Heroes series, we celebrate individuals who are passionate about the past and dedicated to sharing its stories. These are the people who are creating new and exciting ways to narrate the captivating tales that have shaped their local neighbourhoods. History Hero provides a platform to give them the recognition they deserve.

Nestled within the picturesque Calder Valley in Warley Town, West Yorkshire, lies a truly extraordinary sight: the ‘world’s smallest museum’. Uniquely housed inside a repurposed BT telephone box, the Warley Museum has been attracting visitors since its opening in 2016.

Initiated by the Warley Community Association (WCA), who ‘adopted’ the abandoned phone box, the museum was brought to life through the creative vision of local artists Paul and Chris Czainski. Their dedication to preserving and showcasing the village’s rich history has transformed the phone box into a treasure trove of exhibits, featuring displays of memorabilia themed around aspects of Warley history.

Although it can only accommodate a maximum of 2 visitors at a time, the Warley Museum has yet to be acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest museum, but its small stature has had an immense impact on the local community.

Chris and Paul Czainski, curators of the Warley Town Museum

Image Credit: Paul Czainski

How did the idea of turning a phone box into a museum come about?

Chris: The Warley Community Association, of which we are members, had the opportunity to acquire the telephone box for a mere £1. Initially unsure about its purpose, we, as artists, leaned into our creative instincts and came up with the idea of transforming it into a museum. Drawing inspiration from our previous project, the ‘Museum of Curiosity’, a pop-up exhibition hosted in our own cottage during a local arts festival, we sketched out ideas and volunteered to manage the project.

Paul: Having resided in Warley for a decade, we became really fascinated with the village’s heritage. Our house is a converted church, and it is closely intertwined with the history of the area. Patrick Bronte, the father of renowned authors Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, used to receive income from the rents of the neighbouring house.

Warley was once home to Thomas Lister, a celebrated clockmaker responsible for maintaining the clock at St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as James Oldfield, a member of the infamous ‘Cragg Vale Coiners’ gang, who was hung in York in 1770. The village has also been the home to notable residents like Wilfred Pickles, an English actor and broadcaster who was famous in the 1960s.

How did you convert the phone box into a museum?

Paul: The community provided us with tremendous support throughout the project. A local joiner from the area crafted display cases for the interior of the box, while I taught myself the art of glass etching to create illustrations and display panels. Our objective was to keep the phone box’s distinctive appearance.

Chris: We adorned the back of the box with a history board—a panel showcasing fascinating facts about prominent local figures, such as philanthropists, writers, scholars, manufacturers, with a brief history about each person.

The exhibitions are rotated every 3 months, and feature a diverse range of themes. Past exhibitions have showcased local Yorkshire fossils, antique medical instruments, and a fascinating collection of cooking utensils.

An exhibition inside Warley Museum

Image Credit: Paul Czainski

What was the opening like, and how did the locals and media react?

Paul: The grand opening on 8 October 2016 was like the inauguration of a major attraction! Red velvet carpets were rolled out, the brass band from our village played, there were Morris Dancers performing and village residents decorated the streets with bunting. The museum has attracted media coverage from all around the world, and we were even featured in a live broadcast on Good Morning America!

Chris: Although the museum is labeled ‘Warley Museum’, many visitors initially mistake it for an ordinary phone box. Our old church residence, situated across from the museum, has often welcomed visitors who mistake it for part of the museum. On one occasion, we even prepared breakfast for a couple who had traveled all the way from Wigan to visit the museum and accidentally wondered into our house.

What exhibitions have you planned recently and in the future?

Paul: We recently organised an exhibition in celebration of the coronation, which became a collaborative community effort. Together, we crafted a Coronation quilt symbolising royalty and displayed images of past coronation souvenir mugs, including one from Queen Victoria’s era.

Left: Warley Museum’s Coronation display. Right: children visiting the museum to learn about Warley’s history

Image Credit: Paul Czainski

Chris: As for upcoming exhibitions, we aim to shed light on healing and witchcraft later this year. One panel in the museum portrays Agnes Walker, a local woman accused of sorcery and hanged in York in 1598. Our intention is to dispel negative stereotypes associated with witches throughout history and highlight their role as healers within our community, as exemplified by Agnes Walker.

Why do you believe the museum has achieved such remarkable success?

Chris: It has now become a unique local attraction, it has really fired people’s imagination and engaged them with the rich local history. It is just a really fun way to get to know the stories of the people who used to live in the local area.

Warley Museum is situated in the centre of Warley village, at The Maypole Inn. Opening hours are 8am-4pm.

Celeste Neill