Designed in the Greek revival style favoured by the early Victorians, its grand entrance a huge four-pillared portico, the Ashmolean building oozes education and learning. Inside, half a million years of art and archaeology are laid out across six floors, from Anglo-Saxon treasures to contemporary art and sculpture.

Curious tourists, excitable neon-clad school children and history buffs alike stroll around the vast space, peering at printed information plaques or plugged in to the museum’s audio guide.

But if you can tear yourself away from the ancient Egyptian mummy of Djeddjehutyiufankh – known affectionately as ‘Jed’ – a walk downstairs to the museum’s lower level will reveal the history of the Ashmolean museum itself, a story that begins in the 17th century with the collections of a father and son in Lambeth, London.

“Today’s visitors to the Ashmolean are treated to the full modern museum experience,” says Dr Adam Mosley, associate professor of history at Swansea University. “In a matter of mere minutes, we can travel from ancient Egypt to 19th-century Japan via the Italian Renaissance without a thought to how these pieces – displayed intelligently in well-lit glass cases – have come to end up here, in Oxford.

“In fact, the history of the Ashmolean, like most of Britain’s other major museums, is wrapped up with that of a number of other collections that have, for one reason or another, been absorbed over the years.”

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The Ashmolean was born out of the collection of John Tradescant and his son – also John – who together accumulated a wealth of curiosities from around the world in the late 16th/early 17th centuries. In 1629 the pair put their collection – known as the Ark – on public show at their home in Lambeth. For an entrance fee of around six pence, visitors could feast their eyes on a host of strange items, including the hand of a mermaid, an arch of whalebone, an elk’s hoof with three claws and a bat as large as a pigeon.

“The Ark was probably Britain’s first public museum,” says Mosley. “Collecting as a practice and as an aspect of human behaviour can be traced back to antiquity but, more often than not, any sort of display was for private enjoyment. It is only during the Renaissance that we start to see self-conscious attempts to display items in a collection that might then be opened to the public.”

For nearly half a century, the Tradescants entertained visitors with their curiosities, arousing much interest among other collectors of the day, including the 17th-century polymath Elias Ashmole, who bought the house next door. In 1656, Ashmole funded a catalogue of the Tradescants’ collection, the first of its kind to be printed in Britain.

Musaeum Tradescantianum, as it was titled, included within it a record of the contents of both the Ark and its adjacent garden. In gratitude, John Tradescant the Younger willed the collection to Ashmole, although this was later disputed by Tradescant’s widow, Hester. Ashmole, however, won the ensuing legal dispute and became the Ark’s owner; he in turn gifted it to the University of Oxford as a major scientific resource, with the stipulation that it be housed in a purpose-built museum that would be open to the public.

“Most early museums were not established to service visitors primarily,” comments Mosley. “As was the case with Ashmole’s donation of the Ark to the University of Oxford, collections were often accumulated to serve as resources for scholars. But Elias Ashmole was well aware of the growing appetite for visitors to collections and in 1683 the Ashmolean opened to the public – the world’s first university museum.

“The Ashmolean’s first home was just around the corner from here, in Broad Street, a site that now houses the Museum of the History of Science. Ashmole’s museum was still a site of learning, as well as a public attraction: collections were housed on the top floor, with a school of natural history on ground level and laboratories in the basement. The museum’s first curator was actually Robert Plot, Oxford University’s first professor of chemistry.”

Educating the public…

The Ark came into Ashmole’s possession after Hester’s death in 1678, and his collections continued to grow rapidly over the course of the 17th century, boasting works of art, coins and medals donated by Archbishop Laud and Baronet Ralph Freke, as well as Guy Fawkes’s lantern and a sword said to have been given by the pope to Henry VIII – both of which are still on display. Members of the public eagerly handed over a small admission fee to see such historical treasures.

“There were a lot of scholarly and princely collections opening up to visitors in some form or another in the 17th and 18th centuries,” says Mosley. “Often this was done with a sense of enlightened paternalism – the thought that a collection could be educative to the general public. The French revolutionary period, too, became something of a catalyst for the emergence of a new type of modern museum. Many of the items seized by Napoleon were eventually returned to their place of origin where they were put on public display, helping to bring about a new sense that a great collection could be for the nation.”

In England, too, other public museums were springing up, born out of the merging or donation of private collections. In January 1759, the British Museum opened its doors, founded principally from the collections of Hans Sloane, an eclectic collector of books, curiosities and natural specimens. In 1780, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was formed, designed to collect the archaeology of the country. Its collections passed into public ownership in 1851.

“The 19th century is often seen as the heyday of Britain’s museums,” comments Mosley, “thanks, in part, to the Great Exhibition of 1851. This temporary public exhibition of British and world industry became a catalyst for the emergence of modern national museums as we understand them today.

“The Great Exhibition’s legacy included the Museum of Manufactures, which then became the South Kensington Museum, an institution we now know as the V&A. Later, the science collections of the museum were hived off into their own institution and buildings, forming the Science Museum.”

According to Mosley, the merging and demerging of historic collections was key to the development of museums like the Ashmolean. “The 19th century saw collections become more rationalised and specialised, and collections began to be move around far more. As museum collections grew, space also became an issue. The expanding natural history galleries of the British Museum eventually became their own entity in the form of the Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881, while its books and manuscripts eventually became the British Library.”

…even the women

But not everyone was in favour of what were often perceived as scholarly collections being open to the public. One German visitor to the Ashmolean in 1710 expressed disapproval at the number of “ordinary folk” he had encountered during his trip: “It is surprising that things are preserved even as well as they are, since the people impetuously handle every thing in the usual English fashion and… even the women are allowed up here for sixpence; they run here and there, grabbing at everything and taking no rebuff from the sub-custos…” Indeed, records show that, alongside academics and wealthy visitors, the Ashmolean’s treasures were enjoyed by servants and country folk, as well as those sailing on barges along the Thames.

“Visiting the Ashmolean in the 18th or 19th centuries would have been a completely different experience to the welcoming space of today’s modern museum,” says Mosley. “Elias Ashmole helped establish a series of strict rules and regulations with regard to visitors. Glass display cases weren’t common until the 19th century and the open nature of the display meant visitors were escorted at all times to prevent damage or theft.”

One statute specified that “the rareities shalbe shewed but to one company at a tyme, & that upon their being entred into the musaeum, the dore shall be shut”.

One particularly special item that may have been a victim of open displays is Powhatan’s Mantle. Still on show in the Tradescant gallery, this magnificent garment comprised four tanned hides of the white-tailed deer and covered in white shells, is said to have belonged to Pocahontas’s father. The missing shells on the mantle’s lower half were probably picked off by enthusiastic visitors.

Eventually, the Ashmolean, like many other national museums, needed more space for its ever-expanding collections, and in 1845 the museum moved to brand new premises on the corner of Beaumont Street, where it can still be found today.

“Most of us are used to going into museums and learning about where the objects on show have come from, but not necessarily how they came to be in that museum in the first place”, concludes Mosley. “So many of our national museums, and the collections they hold, have fascinating histories in their own rights. It’s time to hear more about them.”

Dr Adam Mosley is associate professor of history at Swansea University. Words: Charlotte Hodgman

British museums: five more places to explore

1) British Museum, London

Where a gift was made to the nation

Hans Sloane collected more than 71,000 items during his lifetime, which he bequeathed to George II for the nation. A museum to house the collection was agreed in 1753 and it opened its doors six years later. Entry was free to “all studious and curious persons”.


2) National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Where collections were merged

Today’s museum incorporates the collections of the former National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, and the Royal Museum. The combined collections were housed from 1891 until 1995 in specially built galleries in Queen Street as a museum to reflect Scottish history.


3) Garden Museum, Lambeth

Where the Tradescants are buried

The Garden Museum is housed in the deconsecrated church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, where the Tradescant family worshipped. Five members of the Tradescant family are buried in a tomb here, including John the elder and John the Younger. The museum itself has a gallery dedicated to the Tradescants and featuring Ark objects on loan from the Ashmolean.


4) Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Where the first Ashmolean opened

Now home to an impressive collection of around 20,000 historic scientific instruments, the museum’s 17th-century building once housed the first Ashmolean. Today, the museum’s galleries are arranged over three floors featuring objects such as Einstein’s blackboard.


5) National Museum Cardiff, Cardiff

Where Welsh history is celebrated

One of seven museums that collectively make up National Museum Wales, National Museum Cardiff was founded in 1905. Today it boasts collections of archaeology, botany, art, geology and zoology.


This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.