9 November, 2009Issue 10.3Photo EssaysThe ArtsVisual Arts

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Ashes to Ashmolean

Emma Park and Akshat Rathi


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After three years and ¬£61 million, the temple-sized doors of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology reopened on Saturday. Five days earlier, when clouds of dust still engulfed the back entrance gates, the Oxonian Review previewed the renovation of “one of the world’s leading museums”. The first impression was one of shining glass and steel, fresh paint, and last-minute bustle. Everywhere, designers, curators, conservationists, and technicians talked intently over coffee tables and added the final amphora or bass viol to the display cabinets.

Designed by architect Rick Mather, the new building contains six storeys of 39 galleries hidden behind Charles Cockerell’s original structure, whose pillared façade of 1845 still fronts Beaumont Street. At a cost of ¬£3,572 per square metre, and with enough square metres to double the Ashmolean’s previous capacity, Mather’s complex is intended to elevate the world’s first university museum from the status of “dear old friend” to internationally recognised “cultural jewel”.

On these statistics alone, an historian of the future might judge that museums are to us what churches were to our medieval forebears: a society’s monuments and, simultaneously, its public centres for education, spiritual improvement, and a higher form of entertainment than bear-pits or night clubs. It appears museums are just as keen to attract pilgrims: the Ashmolean’s target is a 25% increase, to half a million visitors per year. Not having eternal salvation at their disposal, however, the Ashmolean’s curators have resorted to a renovated building, design strategy, and a restaurant to improve their “access” ratings.

Like many a cathedral, the Ashmolean’s new building is an artwork for artworks. Hemmed in on all sides—by the Taylorian, Sackler Library and the Classics Faculty— its internal architecture has been constructed to exploit space and light. On each floor, gallery windows open onto a skylight-lined atrium, which cuts right down to the lower ground floor. Together with the chalky Wiltshire white walls, this layout creates a sense of cool, inviting depths. The open views and abundant glass work on a symbolic level, too, suggesting the interrelations between the cultures and periods on display. Cutting dramatically across this scene, six steel “bridges” literally and figuratively link the distinct collections.

Museums—here again, like churches—are in the business of selectively preserving and presenting the past. In redeploying the Ashmolean’s innumerable relics, designers have produced a new “strategy” for this old project, which they’ve dubbed “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time”. Rather than grouping artefacts by country or period, the Ashmolean’s curators have arranged its wares according to themes which prompt visitors to trace connections between the many cultures represented in the museum. The second floor exhibition, for example, juxtaposes European, Chinese, Japanese and Russian art from the Renaissance to 1900.

Through the combination of several such exhibitions, the renovated Ashmolean aims to present a single, coherent narrative of the evolution of civilisation from prehistory to the present day. According to its curators, the museum is ideally suited for such a task because its modest scale allows a wide range of artefacts to be presented within a relatively small compass. This bid for coherence raises complicated questions and produces some inevitable gaps: South American and modern African cultures, for example, are thinly represented.

To the many groups involved in the Ashmolean’s redesign, however, this holistic narrative is only part of a much broader didactic goal: to show how a comparative approach can be used to demonstrate the intrinsic value of cultural variety and to advance a diverse conception of human progress. The new Ashmolean thus enlists beauty and history in no less a task than a new salvation of souls, if one more subtle than sermons, through the effacement of prejudice and the propagation of tolerance.

To give their artefacts—if not immortality—at least a longer shelf life, the museum’s designers have taken great care in presentation. This has evident benefits: display cabinets fitted with state-of-the-art environmental controls allow fragile textiles, such as an embroidered hanging from the Ottoman Empire, to be shown for the first time; and in-cabinet lighting reveals artefacts’ intricate details, including what is perhaps the Ashmolean’s most prized possession, the crystal, enamel, and gold Alfred Jewel, whose Anglo-Saxon inscription reads “Alfred ordered me to be made”. In the European porcelain room, a series of enormous glass cabinets has been used to glittering effect to display a collection of 1,100 pieces of crockery, as required by the terms of a bequest. Reflections from the glass and the faint daylight which filters through a cabinet-window create a luminous, ghostly atmosphere, appropriate to the strange detached existence of these dinner party veterans. Wiring and other support mechanisms are discreetly hidden in the walls; beauty must not be marred by practicalities.

These technological advances bring the inevitable paradox of rejuvenating a museum into view: its collection’s previous context—from room furnishings to display labels—must in some measure be abandoned to make way for the new. It is thus a relief to find that the Cockerell building’s familiar old ambiance remains largely unchanged. A few cabinets have been replaced, furniture re-upholstered, and walls repainted or re-papered. The floors in both old and new buildings have been freshly covered with European oak parquet, and Portland stone, a material also found in Brasenose College and other Oxford University buildings, appears in both structures. Touches like these provide a simple but tangible continuity between the two buildings and underline the value of both traditional and modern design materials. The rooms in the Cockerell are, however, a little barer and less comfortingly musty than visitors will remember. Where before an aura of haphazard curiosities collected by explorers and antiquarians lingered in the air, today this will not do; “access” requires that displays free from clutter and comprehensible to the most casual visitor. One is left feeling that the spirit of the new museum has subtlely but incongruously encroached on the old.

If the days of discoveries in dusty corners are over, it is nonetheless reassuring to see that some of the Ashmolean’s most intriguing relics have benefited from relocation to a modern setting. Guy Fawkes’ lantern, for instance, is now in the Mather building’s England Gallery, newly accompanied by the “Fifth of November” rhyme in full: “By God’s Providence he was catched/ With a dark lantern and burning match…” Legions of lekythoi which once stood in scattered cabinets among the other Greek vases now form a single display on the staircase down to the “Ancient World” section, with an information panel which quotes Aristophanes. It is also charming to find, in the Japanese section, a full-scale model of a tea-room, constructed in situ by master builders with authentic materials. (An inaugural tea ceremony was held there on 4 November by a Japanese tea-master flew over specially for the occasion).

In this renovated setting, it quickly becomes clear that 21st-century museum-goers demand more for free entry than our downtrodden progenitors. Exhibitions aside (and in addition to the boutique gift shop and subterranean tea-rooms), a modern museum would not be complete without an overpriced gourmet restaurant. Cue the Ashmolean Dining Room, touted as “Oxford’s first rooftop restaurant”, with views over St. John’s College and toward the Randolph Hotel. The air of pricelessness which lingers upon the treasures in the exhibition rooms is almost as tangible here. Even the menu card, in the venerable spirit of Oxford benefaction dinners, includes eighty varieties of wine. In the evenings, the room’s large goose-feather lampshades will be seen glimmering onto the atrium’s cascading staircase; a tantalising reminder that beauty and history also have their price.


Emma Park is reading for a DPhil in Classics at University College, Oxford. She is an editor of ORbits.

Akshat Rathi is reading for an MSc in Organic Chemistry at Exeter College, Oxford. He is the assistant editor at the Oxonian Review.