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The Historical Development of the Ashmolean Museum

Old Ashmolean, c.1760
 

With the opening of its doors on 24th May 1683, the Ashmolean Museum provided a setting in which the private collection emerged into the public domain. Even the use of the term 'Museum' was a novelty in English: a few years later the 'New World of Words' (1706) defined it as 'a Study, or Library; also a College, or Publick Place for the Resort of Learned Men', with a specific entry for 'Ashmole's Museum', described as 'a neat Building in the City of Oxford'.



Elias Ashmole (1617-92)
 

The collection presented to the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole (1617–92) was in origin already half a century old by this time, having been founded by John Tradescant (d.1638) and displayed to the public (for a fee), first by him and later by his son John (1608–62) in their dwelling house at Lambeth, widely known as 'The Ark'. The contents were universal in scope, with man-made and natural specimens from every corner of the known world.



John Tradescant the Elder (d.1638)
 

By the time it passed to Ashmole by deed of gift, the Tradescants' collection of miscellaneous curiosities had grown in scale and stature to the point where its new owner could present it to the University as a major scientific resource. So it was that the Museum opened in Broad Street under its first curator, Dr Robert Plot, as an integrated, three-part institution, comprising the collection itself, a chemistry laboratory for experimentation and teaching, and rooms for undergraduate lectures.



John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62)
 

From the time of its opening the public was also admitted, a liberal measure that was by no means universally welcomed: one German visitor in 1710 expressed his displeasure at the presence of 'ordinary folk' in the Museum and surprise that the collection survived their attentions, '... since the people impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion and ... even the women are allowed up here for sixpence; they run here and there, grabbing at everything and taking no rebuff from the sub-custos'.

 

In the course of the eighteenth century the bonds that linked the various elements of the Museum were progressively loosened, with the result that the collections of specimens lost a great deal of their academic relevance and played a diminishing role in the scientific work carried on in the Museum building.



The Alfred Jewel
 

Important acquisitions during this time were few, with the notable exception of the Alfred Jewel (donated in 1718), mineral specimens and antiquities from the Cornish antiquary the Rev. William Borlase mid-century, and a collection of ethnological materials collected on Captain Cook's Pacific voyage of 1772–5 and presented by Johann Reinhold Forster and his son George, who had been official scientists on the voyage.

 

Meanwhile the inevitable processes of decay took their toll on the original collection, with the result that when John Duncan took office as keeper in 1824 he found that 'the skins of animals collected by the Tradescants had fallen into total decay, that cabinets for those objects which were liable to injury from time were wholly wanting, and that the apartment dedicated to the exhibition of them had become much dilapidated'.



The ground floor of the Ashmolean in 1836
 

Under John Duncan and his brother Philip, who succeeded him in the keepership in 1829, the collections were comprehensively re-displayed according to the tenets of 'natural theology', with a declared purpose 'to induce a mental habit of associating the view of natural phenomena with the conviction that they are the media of divine manifestation'. Fresh natural history specimens were acquired in large numbers by the Duncans to this end and they made no bones of relegating the man-made 'curiosities' in the collection to a secondary role. The character of the Museum was established in this way until mid-century, when the University decided to establish a new Natural Science Museum (today the Oxford University Museum of Natural History), at which point all the natural history specimens from the Ashmolean were transferred to the new institution, and much of its original (essentially scientific) content was lost.

 

Having lost what had become the most important element of its collection (and losing too one of its floors to be used for University examinations), the Ashmolean was to find a major new role for itself in the emerging field of archaeology.

 

The first major tranche of material of this kind had been received as early as 1829, when the Douglas collection of Anglo-Saxon antiquities from Kent had been presented by Sir Richard Colt Hoare. In the decades that followed, important collections of contemporary material from local excavations were added, antiquities from Rome arrived by way of one of the keepers, J H Parker, and numerous pieces were purchased on behalf of the Museum in Egypt and the Near East by the Rev. Greville Chester.



Arthur Evans
 

With the appointment in 1884 of Arthur Evans to the keepership, the Museum was driven ever more energetically in this new direction: Evans offered to relinquish the important ethnological holdings to the newly founded Pitt Rivers Museum while demanding the centralization in the Ashmolean of other materials then held inappropriately in other University departments (most notably the entire coin cabinet housed in the Bodleian Library).



C D E Fortnum
 

Some 2,000 new acquisitions a year from Europe and the East Mediterranean were being made under Evans's regime when the prospect of an even bigger coup presented itself – the acquisition of the collection of classical and Renaissance bronzes and maiolica belonging to C D E Fortnum. The original Ashmolean building simply could not cope with such an influx and Evans persuaded the University to erect new premises for the collection, built-on to the rear of the University Galleries, a handsome neo-classical structure in Beaumont Street in which the University's art collections had been housed since its opening in 1845.



Present Museum, view from St Giles
 

The transfer of material to the new extension was completed in 1894 and in 1908 the two collections were merged to form the institution that survives in those premises to the present day, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology.

 

The archaeological collections, forming the basis of the present-day Department of Antiquities, now found themselves in the distinguished company of the paintings forming the founding collection of the Department of Western Art; additionally, both Departments were considerably enriched by the arrival of what would become of the Fortnum collection, mentioned above.

 

The remaining Departments that complete the present-day structure of the Museum were added in the course of the twentieth century. In 1922 the coin collection from the Bodleian Library was transferred to the Ashmolean, initially within the Department of Antiquities but in 1961 being reconstituted as an independent department dedicated to coins and medals, the Heberden Coin Room.

 

The latter year also saw the formal removal to the Ashmolean of the Indian Institute collections, comprising first-rate Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Japanese material, to form the Department of Eastern Art. A final development of this reorganization was the formal constitution of the Cast Gallery as a separate department, although the origins of its collections can be traced back for a century and more.

 

More information on each of these departments can be found by visiting the respective departmental web pages.

 

Further reading

  • R F Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (1986)
  • C H Josten, Elias Ashmole 1617-1692 (1966)
  • A MacGregor, Tradescant's Rarities (1983)
  • A MacGregor, The Ashmolean Museum: a brief history of the institution and its collections (2001)
  • See also the chapters relating to the Ashmolean and to the University Galleries in The History of the University of Oxford: vol. V, The Eighteenth Century (1986); vol. VI, The Nineteenth Century (1997); vol. VII, The Twentieth Century (1999).

For information on the future of the Ashmolean, and details of the redevelopment plan, please see Transforming the Ashmolean.