New face for oldest museum

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Recently, I nipped along to a preview of the newly revamped Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It was quite a treat.

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The museum has been closed to visitors while it’s been undergoing an extremely substantial £61 million overhaul (£15 million of that from the Heritage Lottery Fund), but on 7 November, its doors will swing open once more. Actually the doors revolve, but their location is worthy of comment. No longer do visitors have to sneak into the building via a side entrance as was previously the case, but now you’ll be ushered inside via the front steps of the handsome neo-classical facade of the museum. So, you get to enjoy the full force of of the original building designed by CR Cockerell in 1845.

So far, so different, but the genuine metamorphosis is within. The architects managed to convince the planners that there was a case for ripping out the back of this Grade 1 listed building and replacing it with an entirely new structure, doubling the exhibition footage in the process. It’s all steel bridges, cascading natural light, portland stone floors, and high, bright, white galleries. Frankly it’s all very impressive and modern and enticing, particularly when you get to the top floor and the rooftop cafe.

This all means that there’s both more space and a fresh ambience within which to display the glorious treasures that the museum has amassed since Elias Ashmole acquired the collections of that notable gardening father and son duo, the Tradescants, in 1659 and used them as the basis for the museum that opened in 1683. “It’s like going round the world in a day” was the comment that 17th-century museum-goers uttered as they viewed the early galleries. And it’s still like going round the world today in the new museum, with fabulous artefacts from Europe, the Middle East and Asia jostling for attention in their new display cases. The big idea is to show the connections between all these cultures and continents – it’s a departure from the departmental approach.

It’s definitely a modern and enticing museum, but I wonder if anyone might hanker for the old Cabinet of Curiousities feel that the Ashmolean previously exhibited. I had a chat with the man who led the revamp project, Henry Kim, and quizzed him on that very point. He pointed out that the basement galleries include a room exploring the long history of the museum and opined that the spirit of the old museum lives on there and in various little corners of the bright new building. You can listen to our chat by clicking on the audio player on this page, but bear in mind that we were sat in one of the galleries so there is some background noise, including I’m sorry to say, a lift that bings with tedious regularity.

What will the anticipated half million visitors every year come flocking to see? The Alfred Jewel, Guy Fawkes’ lamp, acres of antique porcelain, and some amazingly intricate carved wooden doors that TE Lawrence brought home from Arabia will all draw crowds. But textile enthusiasts now have a particular reason to visit as at long last, the curators have been able to bring out their tremendously important collection now that the museum, for the very first time, boasts the appropriate environmental controls to allow their display.

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Certainly worth a look, both for the building and the contents, should you find yourself in Oxford from 7 November onward.