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Stories from the Ashmolean Museum

Inside the new-look Ashmolean

The renovated Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology opened to the public on Saturday 7 November.

The award-winning architect Rick Mather has designed a new building, replacing all but the Grade I listed Cockerell building.

The redevelopment cost £61m, doubling the existing gallery space.

These changes mark the latest upgrades to the UK's oldest public museum, with its origins dating back to the early 17th Century.

By clicking on the links on the right you can find out more about the museum's exhibits, from popular attractions like the Guy Fawkes lantern to recent acquisitions like the Titian painting.


The museum takes its name from Elias Ashmole, an aficionado of antiquities who studied at the University of Oxford whilst posted to the military there.

He was one of the first gentleman freemasons in England and had wide ranging interests including astrology and alchemy.

He liked to collect coins, metal, books and manuscripts and he apparently possessed the secret of the Philosopher's Stone (one of the great alchemical secrets).

Ashmole was also a founder member of the Royal Society, interested in the study of nature and objects and their application to the benefit of mankind.

But the choice of his name for the museum is not without controversy.

Elias Ashmole
The museum was named after Elias Ashmole, who donated his curiosities

David Berry, project curator of the Ashmolean tells the full story: "The museum opened to the public officially in 1683 but its history is traced further back.

"The collection that was its core was compiled by two John Tradescants, father and son. They were gardeners to Charles I, and in the late 1620s John Sr took out a lease on a house in South Lambeth.

"1634 is the first recorded instance of a visitor having seen that material.

"It was really the first instance where a collection of that sort - what would be referred to as a Cabinet of Curiosities - was made accessible to the general public regardless of age, gender or status.

"That is unique to them and one of the things that Ashmole inherited. It became a key foundational element of the Ashmolean when it opened here in Oxford."

"The Ark", as it was known, caught Ashmole's attention when he purchased the house next door: "He had an interest in the Tradescant collection.

"In 1656 he paid for and was in large part responsible for helping to compile a catalogue of it. It was the first printed catalogue of a museum collection or a collection of any sort in England."

Many people make the comment that it should rightfully be the Tradescant Museum as opposed to the Ashmolean - it's an interesting point
David Berry
project curator of the Ashmolean

When John Tradescant III died at an early age, in the absence of an heir the future of the collection seemed in jeopardy. In 1659 the collection was passed to Ashmole by Deed of Gift.

But it seems that John Tradescant the Younger regretted this, and he left everything in his will to his wife. This led to a court case upon his death. The deed proved valid and Ashmole won the case.

In 1657 Ashmole began negotiations with his former university. A museum was built on Broad Street (now the Museum of the History of Science). It opened in 1683 and housed the Tradescant collection.

"Ashmole is very often vilified for his role in this," David Berry continues.

"Many people make the comment that it should rightfully be the Tradescant Museum as opposed to the Ashmolean. It's an interesting point.

"The bulk of the material that he donated and that arrived and was open to the public had a Tradescant prominence.

"Ashmole was a major collector in his own right but quite a bit of that burned in a fire in his chambers in Middle Temple.

Identity crisis

"In some sense there would have been a more even spread between Tradescant and Ashmole material had that not taken place.

"But the institution is entirely Ashmole's. It was through his influence that the university was persuaded to build the building.

"Ashmole gave it its proper philosophical foundation. He provided it with a series of statutes by which it was to run. In a sense the right name is on the front door.

"The collection in terms of what survived is largely Tradescant's and Ashmole was actually quite clear about that in his correspondence with the university.

"He also donated all of the family portraits. We have a dozen or more portraits of the members of the Tradescant family which all very clearly say on them 'Donated by Elias Ashmole'. He would not have done that had he not intended for their legacy to be preserved as well as his own."

Over the years the museum rapidly began to run out of space. In the mid 19th century the university's collections were subject to a "process of rationalisation".

New Ashmolean interior
Award-winning architect Rick Mather has designed a new building

The museum was originally conceived to represent the world in microcosm, crossing cultures, times and disciplines (the epitaph on the Tradescant tomb even reads "a world of wonders in one closet shop"). But in the quickly developing 19th century, the sciences were dividing into many different disciplines and the collections had to expand in line with them.

Eventually the 1860s saw the natural history collections transferred to Parks Road where they formed the core of the University Museum - now the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Once the Tradescant collection was moved to the Pitt Rivers Museum in the 1880s the museum was left with something of a crisis of identity.

David Berry describes the museum's new change of direction: "the focus shifted almost entirely to the area of archaeology. The museum began to acquire significant holdings of material from Egypt, the Near East, from throughout Continental Europe as well as archaeological material from throughout the British Isles and the classical world."

By this time the University Galleries, housed in a neo-classical building in Beaumont Street, had been displaying many fine examples of paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints. The treasures of the Ashmolean, which had outgrown the space on Broad Street, were moved to an extension at the back of the newer building.

It was in 1908 that the two institutions amalgamated to form the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. This is the museum we have today, albeit now with a new and improved modern makeover.

"Music" by Edward Burne-Jones
02 Nov 09 |  People & Places
The Alfred Jewel
02 Nov 09 |  People & Places
The Ashmolean's coin collection
03 Nov 09 |  Arts & Culture
Guy Fawkes' lantern
03 Nov 09 |  Arts & Culture
Titian's restored Triumph of Love
04 Nov 09 |  History
In pictures: New Ashmolean Museum
06 Nov 09 |  Oxfordshire
In pictures: Queen opens museum
02 Dec 09 |  People & Places


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