12 May 2017

In May 2017 the Ashmolean will launch a new programme celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of Elias Ashmole, founder of the world’s first public museum. The Birthday Programme will include events and activities exploring the origins of the Museum and Ashmole’s connections with the City of Oxford which, during his time here, was the Royalist capital in the English Civil War. The Museum is delighted to announce that it has received a National Lottery grant of £90,900 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to share the stories of Oxford in the Civil War during a year-long programme which will be launched with an Ashmolean LiveFriday on 19 May. Made possible by money raised by National Lottery Players, the evening will begin with a Civil War Procession starting in Broad Street at 6.30pm. Featuring King Charles I on horseback leading his army into Oxford, the parade will arrive at the Ashmolean at 7.00pm for Elias Ashmole’s birthday party where the cast of characters and guests will bring to life Ashmole’s surprise 400th birthday present. The LiveFriday events will be themed around Civil War Oxford and will be animated by re-enactors from The Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote; the Passamezzo company of singers and players; historical interpretation company, Past Pleasures; and of course Elias Ashmole himself. 

Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Elias Ashmole (1617–92) trained as a lawyer but he was better known for his wide-ranging interests. He was a collector and antiquary; an alchemist, astrologer and botanist; and an early adopter of freemasonry. A staunch Royalist, Ashmole left London at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 and moved, in 1644, to Oxford, the new Royalist capital and Cavalier stronghold where he was made an ordnance officer for the King’s forces. The following year he was admitted to Brasenose College to study natural philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and astrology.

Today Ashmole is perhaps best known as the man who founded the Ashmolean. Although the museum was named for Ashmole, the collection which he bequeathed to the University of Oxford in 1677 had been largely assembled by the noted gardeners and collectors John Tradescant and his son who displayed their treasures at their house in Lambeth known as ‘the Ark’. It is thought that John Tradescant the younger bequeathed the collection to Ashmole in 1659 who then combined it with his own collection of coins and a magnificent library of books and manuscripts. In 1683 he transferred the collection to Oxford, sending it by barge in twentysix large chests to be installed in a custom-built museum in Broad Street – now the Museum of the History of Science.

When the Ashmolean was opened in 1683 it was not just a repository and place for research and teaching but also a public museum. Ashmole’s vision ultimately laid the foundations for museums as we know them today, yet this globally-important story is little known. Thanks to grants from the DCMS/Wolfson Museums & Galleries Improvement Fund, the Linbury Trust and a private individual, a new permanent gallery devoted to the history of the Museum is planned to be opened in the autumn in the central space of the Ashmolean’s lower-ground floor. Further information on the new gallery is available here.

Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum, says: ‘Elias Ashmole is a character who should be better known and the 400th anniversary of his birth is an opportunity to tell his story. The precise circumstances by which he came to own to the Tradescants’ collection are the subject of much speculation, but the gift he made to the University of Oxford and the establishment of the world’s first public museum were acts which have resonated down the centuries.

‘We are profoundly grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund and National Lottery players, and to DCMS/Wolfson, the Linbury Trust and private individuals for supporting the 400th anniversary programme which will help bring the story of the Ashmolean to a wider audience.’

Claire Parris
Press Officer
T+44 (0)1865 278 178
M+44 (0)7833 384 512

John Riley (1646–91)
Elias Ashmole
Oil on canvas, 124 x 101 cm
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford