HISTORY OF THE ASHMOLEAN
The Ashmolean came into existence in 1682, when the wealthy antiquary Elias Ashmole gifted his collection to the University. It opened as Britain’s first public museum, and the world’s first university museum, in 1683.
Though the collection has evolved considerably, the founding principle remains: that knowledge of humanity across cultures and across times is important to society. A laudable intention, but the uncomfortable truth is that much of the collection was inevitably selected and obtained as a result of colonial power.
John Tradescant and 'The Ark'
Elias Ashmole acquired his collection from two gardeners: John Tradescant, father and son. Employed by the wealthy Earl of Salisbury, the Tradescants had travelled the world known to Europeans, shipping back new and exotic plant specimens for the Earl's gardens. In the course of their travels they also acquired a remarkable collection of botanical, geological and zoological items as well as man-made objects.
The Tradescant’s themselves established a museum in Lambeth, South London, known as ‘The Ark’ to house their collection in 1634. A visitor to this original museum commented that ‘a man might in one day behold…more curiosities than he should see if he spent all his life in travel.’ The collection contained treasures such as the ‘mantle’ (actually a wall hanging) of Pocahontas's father Powhatan, and the stuffed body of a dodo.
Gifted to the University of Oxford
When Ashmole gifted this collection to the University, it was combined with an older University collection, which included Guy Fawkes’s lantern and Jacob’s Coat of Many Colours (long since lost). The original Ashmolean Museum opened on Broad Street in 1683, in the building that is now the History of Science Museum. Members of the public were admitted to the Ashmolean Museum from the outset (a controversial policy in the 17th century). Alongside the collection, this building was designed to house a chemistry laboratory and rooms for undergraduate lectures.
During the 18th century, an audit of the Ashmolean collections revealed the extent of decay and loss of original specimens. Most notably, the Tradescant’s famous dodo was in such an advanced state of decay it was considered beyond redemption and removed from display (today the head and one foot survive in the University Museum of Natural History).
The knowledge of Nature is very necessary to human life and health.
Changes and Expansion in the 1800s
In 1820s the fortunes of the Ashmolean collections began to change under the reforming stewardship of brothers John and Philip Duncan. When the Ashmolean had first opened, the building in Broad Street was large enough for laboratories and lecture rooms which fulfilled the University’s requirements for the teaching of natural sciences. In the early 19th century the explosive development of these disciplines called for expanded facilities. This led, in 1860, to the University opening its second museum, on Parks Road, in the building that still remains the site of the University Museum of Natural History. The founding collection of this new museum was formed using surviving natural history specimens from the old Ashmolean collection.
This left the Ashmolean somewhat at a loss – a significant portion of the most important objects in the Museum were no longer there. Into this void stepped archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who became Keeper of the Ashmolean in 1884. In his 24-year keepership he transformed the museum by acquiring an internationally important archaeological collection. In 1894 he moved the collection from Broad Street to Beaumont Street behind the University Art Galleries and in 1908 the two institutions combined to create the current Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Evans also arranged for the Bodleian’s collection of coins to form part of the Ashmolean collections in 1922, the core of which is now the Museum’s Heberden Coin Room.
The antiquities department expanded as a result of archaeological excavations across the United Kingdom and Europe, not least Evan’s discoveries at Knossos in Crete. Other significant collections came from Egypt and the Middle East where British colonial power enabled a significant division of objects between the foreign excavators and the country where they were dug up.
The standard of artworks also improved during this period thanks to gifts of paintings and drawings. An important collection of early Pre-Raphaelite works were donated in 1893 by Martha Combe, the widow of Thomas Combe who had been an early patron of the Brotherhood.
The 20th Century
The 20th century’s most significant acquisitions included the collections of the Indian Institute. Part museum, part training ground for prospective civil servants, the institute became redundant after Indian independence. Its collection formed the core of a new Eastern Art department. Up until then, all art had been part of the Fine Art department, which had prioritised Western traditions.
The newly independent Eastern department incorporated the Islamic world, the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, and gave these fields the prominence and scholarship that in turn encouraged further important donations. The Ashmolean today has the largest collection of Chinese greenware outside China and one of the finest collections of modern Chinese art in Europe.
In 1959 the collection of classical casts established itself as a separate department from antiquities. The departments as they currently stand – Western Art, Eastern Art, Antiquities, Cast Gallery and the Coin Room – inevitably reflect the areas of study prioritised in the past, but are now supplemented with collaborative projects with our university and community partners.
Refurbishment and the Future
The Ashmolean was refurbished in 2009, and opened to multiple-award-winning acclaim. The Ashmolean Director is Xa Sturgis.
Wonderful things, exquisitely displayed
To travel through the galleries is to be handed a round-the-world ticket on a tour of history
In recent years, alongside other museums and cultural institutions, the Ashmolean has become increasingly aware of the need to revise the interpretation of its collections and acknowledge our collecting history. We fully acknowledge our responsibility to decolonise our thinking, language and practices to reflect a broader range of perspectives and narratives.