Spend a day in the Ashmolean in Oxford and you’ll be transported in space and time, exploring civilisations across the world over 10,000 years of history
See some of history’s greatest treasures at the Ashmolean, Oxford
When Elias Ashmole gifted the University of Oxford his sprawling collections of manuscripts, geological and zoological specimens and assorted curios, they came with a stipulation: a suitable home had to be built and be available to the public. His wish was obliged, and the Ashmolean duly opened its doors on 24 May 1683, making it the world’s inaugural university museum.
The Ashmolean would add so many treasures over the centuries that it had to move to a grander location a few roads away. It remains there today as one of the foremost museums in Britain – open (and free) to everyone, just as Ashmole wanted.
Although he enjoyed collecting antiquities himself, much of what Ashmole donated actually belonged to a father-son pair of antiquarians initially. John Tradescant the Elder and Younger accumulated a trove of ancient coins, books and engravings, as well as the weird and wonderful. As botanists – both served as head gardeners to Charles I – they held a particular fascination for exotic plants, but also possessed a zoo’s worth of stuffed animals (the highlight being the last dodo seen in Europe), the lantern used by Guy Fawkes, Henry VIII’s hawking glove and the ‘robe of the King of Virginia’ (Powhatan’s mantle).
The Tradescant collection had been displayed for years at their Lambeth house, a cabinet of curiosities named ‘The Ark’. When John the Younger died with no children, though, it all went to Ashmole, who had helped catalogue every item. He then
“It remains one of the foremost museums in Britain”
chose to donate it to Oxford, having a long connection to the university – going back to the 1640s, when he studied there during the Civil War.
Transporting everything to the Ashmolean building on Broad Street supposedly required 12 wagons, but would have required even more if he had not lost a lot of his own collection in a fire. He then missed the opening due to poor health, but Ashmole had succeeded in establishing a public museum, under the keepership of naturalist Dr Robert Plot.
The 18th century saw both new additions for the Ashmolean – including materials from Captain Cook’s second voyage – and the deterioration of some of the original items. The dodo decayed so much that it had to be destroyed. The natural history specimens then stopped being a feature entirely when a new museum opened in Oxford in the mid-19th century, leading the Ashmolean to change its focus to the field of archaeology.
This intensified when Arthur Evans became keeper in 1884. As he was the man who uncovered the Palace of Knossos on Crete (the fabled location of the Minotaur and the labyrinth), he brought in an impressive collection of Minoan pottery. In fact, he made so many archaeological acquisitions from around the world (an average of 2,000 a year) that the museum needed more room.
The Ashmolean’s artefacts were moved to a neo-classical building, which they would share with the university galleries: drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo, along with Turner watercolours. In 1908, the two institutions combined into the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology.
Today, it is easy to marvel both at the Ashmolean’s treasures and the thought-provoking ways they are displayed, which have been improved by major redevelopments since 2000. For those who may find the sheer volume of things to see a little overwhelming, there are a number of free tours throughout the day, but you’ll need to spend much longer here to fully enjoy this wonderful museum.
THE MUMMY OF EXHIBITIONS The Ancient Egyptian
collection will always be the most popular, and for good reason, but that is only one of the cultures of the world that can be explored here.
The museum’s extensive collection of funerary items includes a set of Theban coffins