May 242018

On this date in 1683 the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford in England opened as the world’s first university museum. Its first building was erected in 1678–83 to house the cabinet of curiosities that Elias Ashmole gave to the University of Oxford in 1677. Ashmole’s original collection was made up of an odd assortment of objects which he had collected himself as well as from the gardeners, travelers, and collectors John Tradescant the elder and his son, John Tradescant the younger. The collection included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens, and zoological specimens—one of which was the stuffed body of the last dodo ever seen in Europe. However, by 1755 the stuffed dodo was so moth-eaten that it was destroyed, except for its head and one claw. The museum opened on this date with naturalist Robert Plot as the first keeper. The first building, which became known as the Old Ashmolean, is sometimes attributed to Sir Christopher Wren or Thomas Wood.

After the various specimens had been moved into new museums, the “Old Ashmolean” building on Broad Street was used as office space for the Oxford English Dictionary. Since 1924, the building has been established as the Museum of the History of Science, with exhibitions including the scientific instruments given to Oxford University by Lewis Evans (1853–1930), amongst them the world’s largest collection of astrolabes.

The present building dates from 1841–45. It was designed by Charles Cockerell in a classical style and stands on Beaumont Street. One wing of the building is occupied by the Taylor Institution, the modern languages faculty of the university, standing on the corner of Beaumont Street and St Giles’ Street. The main museum contains huge collections of archaeological specimens and fine art. It has one of the best collections in the world of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, majolica pottery, and English silver. The archaeology department includes the bequest of Arthur Evans and so has an excellent collection of Greek and Minoan pottery. The department also has an extensive collection of antiquities from Ancient Egypt and the Sudan, and the museum hosts the Griffith Institute for the advancement of Egyptology.


The interior of the Ashmolean has been extensively modernized in recent years and now includes a rooftop restaurant and large gift shop. In 2000, the Chinese Picture Gallery, designed by van Heyningen and Haward Architects, opened at the entrance of the Ashmolean and is partly integrated into the structure. The gallery was inserted into a lightwell in the Grade 1 listed building, and was designed to support future construction from its roof. Apart from the original Cockerell spaces, this gallery was the only part of the museum retained in the rebuilding. It houses the Ashmolean’s own collection, but is also used from time to time for the display of loan exhibitions and works by contemporary Chinese artists. It is the only museum gallery in Britain devoted to Chinese paintings.

The Sackler Library, incorporating the older library collections of the Ashmolean, opened in 2001 and has allowed an expansion of the book collection, which concentrates on Western classical history, archaeology and art history. On 26 November 2011, the Ashmolean opened to the public the new galleries of Ancient Egypt and Nubia. This second phase of major redevelopment now allows the Museum to exhibit objects that have been in storage for decades, more than doubling the number of coffins and mummies on display. The project received lead support from Lord Sainsbury’s Linbury Trust, along with the Selz Foundation, Mr Christian Levett, as well as other trusts, foundations, and individuals. Rick Mather Architects led the redesign and display of the four previous Egypt galleries and the extension to the restored Ruskin Gallery, previously occupied by the Museum Shop.

In May 2016, the museum opened new galleries dedicated to the display of its collection of Victorian art. This development allowed for the return to the Ashmolean of the Great Bookcase, designed by William Burges, and described as “the most important example of Victorian painted furniture ever made.”

As much as for any other reason, this post gives me an opportunity to give my opinion about museums, university or otherwise. In brief: I hate them. As someone who publishes in anthropology and archeology you may find this sentiment odd, but it is really straightforward. Museums house objects out of context, one way or another. In the case of museums like the Ashmolean, they house objects that were stolen from their original owners and cultures, and in many cases they want them back. Starting in the 17th century, and reaching a climax in the heady colonial period of the 19th century, English explorers, who called themselves archeologists, loaded wagon after wagon with antiquities and sent them back to England, either for display or for storage in dusty basements. Until recently, the great bulk of items stored by the Ashmolean (and the British Museum, etc etc.) never saw the light of day (and were generally so poorly cataloged that even serious researchers had trouble finding them). It’s true that they may not fare a whole lot better in their “home” cultures, but that is where they belong. Just last week I was wandering around antiquities in Rome, and the week before that in Istanbul. In some parks and museums there I saw piles of broken statues and columns and the like lying outside in heaps. This may not have been the best use for them, but at least they were at home: they were in a more natural context than in a basement in England (or even on display in England). They are not English !!!

The second way in which items are out of context in museums, is that by displaying them, as opposed to using them, they are dead. Every amphitheater in Italy I have visited is still used for performances. I’m glad they don’t throw Christians to the lions in the Coliseum in Rome any more – that’s taking context a bit too far. But they do still hold concerts there routinely. People live in apartments in Diocletian’s summer palace in Split in Croatia. These structures are an important part of modern people’s lives and heritage. The museum at my university once held an exhibit of traditional quilts – stretched flat on starkly lit walls. Quilts don’t belong hung on walls. They belong on beds. At least if you must display them, put them on beds in a gallery where you must walk around them, see the natural folds they make and how these folds impact how you see them, and use natural light which changes as the day progresses, creating endless patterns of light and shadow.

The only general exception I make for this grumpiness is for art paintings. They were painted to be displayed on walls, and even though they might be more natural in a living room or dining room, having them in museums allows more viewers. I still prefer to see them in some form of appropriate context. Here in Mantua you can see thousands of Renaissance and Baroque paintings commissioned by successive members of the Gonzaga family on display in their old residences. That is as good a context as any.

The Ashmolean now has a rooftop restaurant for visitors, and I could give you a recipe from their menu to be as out of context as the museum is. From what I can tell from reviews, the menu is eclectic (with a heavy dose of modern Italian) and is generally overpriced. Reviews of the dishes range from stellar to garbage. I never see this as a good sign. When half give a restaurant one star and half give it five, my immediate instinct is to believe the people who have given it one. They tend to be the people who know what they are talking about, and the people who tend towards the 4/5 end are easily impressed and don’t know what good food really is. Chances are the food at this restaurant is probably around 2/3 (that is, highly average – and overpriced). Let’s instead go with something 17th century in honor of Elias Ashmole himself. I’ve mentioned The Accomplisht Cook (1st ed. 1660) by Robert May before. It’s a strange compilation in that it is highly eclectic (as is the Ashmolean’s collections), drawing on recipes from Medieval times, as well as from different parts of Europe. There are 24 chapters, dividing the recipes according to May’s somewhat original classifications system. I am drawn to chapter III “Heads” for no other reason than that I am quirky also.

This recipe appeals to me greatly and I would replicate it for you if I had a calf’s head and oysters to hand:

To roast a Calves Head with Oysters.

Split the head as to boil, and take out the brains washing them very well with the head, cut out the tongue, boil it a little, and blanch it, let the brains be parbol’d as well as tongue, then mince the brains and tongue, a little sage, oysters, beef-suet, very small; being finely minced, mix them together with three or four yolks of eggs, beaten ginger, pepper, nutmegs, grated bread, salt, and a little sack, if the brains and eggs make it not moist enough. This being done parboil the calves head a little in fair water, then take it up and dry it well in a cloth filling the holes where the brains and tongue lay with this farsing or pudding; bind it up close together, and spit it, then stuff it with oysters being first parboil’d in their own liquor, put them into a dish with minced tyme, parsley, mace, nutmeg, and pepper beaten very small; mix all these with a little vinegar, and the white of an egg, roul the oysters in it, and make little holes in the head, stuff it as full as you can, put the oysters but half way in, and scuer in them with sprigs of tyme, roast it and set the dish under it to save the gravy, wherein let there be oysters, sweet herbs minced, a little white-wine and slic’t nutmeg. When the head is roasted set the dish wherein the sauce is on the coals to stew a little, then put in a piece of butter, the juyce of an orange, and salt, beating it up together: dish the head, and put the sauce to it, and serve it up hot to the table

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