Bri­tain’s Trea­sures

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

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

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

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