The Ashmolean came into existence when the wealthy antiquary Elias Ashmole gifted his collection to the University in 1682. He did so ‘because the knowledge of Nature is very necessary to human life and health.’ It opened as Britain’s first public museum, and the world’s first university museum.
Though the collection has evolved considerably, the founding principle remains: that knowledge of humanity across cultures and across times is important to society.
Elias Ashmole acquired his collection from two gardeners: John Tradescant, father and son. The Tradescants were no ordinary gardeners; they were employed by the wealthy Earl of Salisbury. The Tradescants voyaged overseas, travelling the known world and 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 curiosities that included 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 of Pocahontas's father (Powhatan) and the stuffed body of the last dodo ever seen in Europe.
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 Museum of the History of Science. 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.