Ashmolean Museum Transformed

Article excerpt

Oxford's Ashmolean Museum has been transformed. Most of the galleries, so long familiar to archaeologists, have been replaced in an exciting architectural idiom and a thought-provoking new method of display.

The Ashmolean holds Oxford University's largest collections of art and archaeology. While its priorities have always remained teaching and research, it was open to the public from the outset, in 1683. The history of the museum's purposes since then is complicated (MacGregor 2001); and the new galleries open a flesh chapter. Unveiled in steps since November 2009, they are based on a radical and confident shift of footing: instead of expecting us just to peer over a don's shoulder, as it were, guessing about the assumptions on which the exhibits are laid out--or merely seeing unusual things in rows--they address the public explicitly.

The front of the museum has been retained but the interior completely rebuilt. The grand facade remains and, on entering, so does the gallery of Classical sculptures and, beyond them--as yet--the intense chambers of ancient Egyptian and Nubian exhibits. Above these, the galleries of Western art remain too. Pass further back and the experience is quite new: compact galleries with cool floors and walls in the basement, on the ground floor itself, and on two above. They have doubled the space for display; and it is used in each gallery with various cases and plinths to offer diverse angles for studying exhibits large and small. The spacing and lighting are conducive; and a lightwell and an eye-catching whitewashed stairwell punctuate the galleries and allow views of different galleries both horizontally and from floor to floor. There is new provision for conservation and for schools and students, plus a cafe below and--inconceivable here before--a rooftop restaurant.

The boldest conceptual innovation is the general interpretive theme, Crossing culture, crossing time. The basement galleries suggest dimensions to trace and 'how to "read" ... objects in different ways': the human image, illustrated with Egyptian, Assyrian, Aegean, Classical and Modern statues, sculptures, busts and reliefs; textiles; Money; Reading and writing, with proto-cuneiform, an ostracon, and runes; and, to reflect on the evidence as such, principles of archaeological investigation, conservation and the museum's own history. On the floors above, 'Orientation galleries' introduce particular themes: Ancient world, on passing through the entry foyer, where Sumerian texts, Aegean and Greek sculpture and pottery, Roman coins, and earthenware from Japan are assembled in one case; Asian crossroads, upstairs, with maps to mark medieval and Early Modern long distance routes and the Rise and spread of world religions; on the second floor, The age of European discoveries, leading, among other galleries, to England 400-1600; and then nineteenth- and twentieth-century art occupies the top of the museum with a space reserved for temporary exhibitions.

Gone are the cool, lucid, dry typologies. Presumably, most of the technicalities are explained with the teaching collections in the 'study rooms'. Greece, for instance, little concerned with sorting figures red from black, draws pots and sculptures together vividly, replete with texts to explain the iconography--knowledge assumed in earlier visitors. Yet, other than in the basement, the galleries do present conventional subjects such as Ancient Cyprus or China to AD 800 and, above, Medieval Cyprus or China from AD 800. …