By Wells, Rhona
The Middle East , No. 406
Originally founded in 1683, the Ashmolean in Oxford, a significant museum of art and archaeology with over 4,000 Islamic artefacts, reopened on 7 November following a 10-month, 61m [pounds sterling] redevelopment project.
The Ashmolean treasures include some of the best examples of pre-Dynastic Egyptian material in Europe, in addition to astonishingly rare and precious collections of Minoan antiquities, Raphael drawings, coins and medals and outstanding displays of Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Islamic art. The works and objects in these collections help unravel the story of ancient civilisations; the dreams and aspirations of mankind from Nineveh and Ancient Egypt, right up to 20th century Europe. The new building, designed by award-winning Rick Mather Architects provides 100% more display space as well as opening up the displays to the light and the outside world. Ashmolean's director, Christopher Brown, said he expected the new galleries to be recognised as "among the outstanding museum buildings of the 21st century".
Whole collections that could not previously be displayed are now on view. The Ashmolean has a 5,000-piece textile collection but, because the old building lacked the appropriate environment controls, it could not be seen in public. These treasures include a large collection of Muslim Gujerat printed cotton fragments, and the earliest examples known of Ikat robes from Central Asia. The gallery walls are hung with tapestries, the "finest group of medieval Islamic textiles in the world", according to Brown as well as the robes of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).
The 'crossing cultures, crossing time' philosophy of the revamp allows each object's story to be traced as a journey of ideas and influences across time and continents, enabling visitors to discover how civilisations developed as part of an interrelated world culture. Themed galleries explore the connections between objects and activities common to different cultures, such as money, reading and writing, and the representation of the human image. Entire floors are arranged chronologically, charting the development of the ancient and modern worlds. As the director explained exclusively to The Middle East, "The bridges, which are at the core of the redesign, don't only join exhibition halls, they also link cultures. The new approach aims to highlight cultural contact and exchanges as opposed to promoting the differences, which was the classical way of doing things. It will deepen understanding whilst hopefully intriguing new visitors."
The redevelopment could not have been achieved without public as well as private funding. Arab funding has given art in Britain much support in recent years and the Ashmolean project alone has benefited from 2m [pounds sterling] investment over the last five years from Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. Brown noted that Prince Sultan's financial aid was "extremely generous". The new Islamic art gallery, part of the ambitious development plans, has been named Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud Gallery of the Islamic Middle East. The 2 million [pounds sterling] gift also makes provision for 10 scholarships at the University of Oxford for Saudi Arabian students. …