A Day At The Ashmolean Museum

A Day At The Ashmolean Museum

Friday morning in Oxford Another busy day lies ahead at the world’s
oldest university museum and home to the University of Oxford’s
outstanding collection of art and archaeology. More than a million people from across
the globe will visit the Ashmolean this year making it one of the most popular
cultural destinations in the whole of Europe. The desire to be welcoming is something that’s written into the very DNA of the Ashmolean. This place has always been for public, for students, for all of us, and as a result it’s an institution with a very open heart. I remember first coming here when I was studying ancient and modern history at St Hilda’s College and walking into this beautiful neoclassical building and immediately being hooked because it seemed to me that here you could jigsaw puzzle together the whole story of human civilization. It was the beginning of a love affair with
the museum that’s lasted up until today. As a historian and writer I often come here to be inspired and enthralled by the Ashmolean’s collections. Spend a day here and you travel the world through eight thousand years of time. This is one of my favourite objects in the museum. It’s a pot from the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete, which is of course the legendary home to the minotaur, a creature who was thought to be half man
half bull, and was eventually killed by the hero Theseus. I love the way that the octopus sprawls around the edges of the pot because it reminds us that Minoan Crete was a very powerful maritime empire. And those little dots, that you can see in between the tentacles, were actually murex sea snails they were harvested to produce purple dye for the luxury end of the Bronze Age markets. It’s fantastic, isn’t it, to think that
this thing started off life back in prehistory on an island that had
connections to three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – and now it’s ended up here in the Ashmolean. The collections of the Ashmolean are truly
astonishing. All the great civilizations of the world
are represented in the collections here. We have the greatest collection of Egyptian predynastic material here outside Cairo. The greatest collection of Raphael drawings in the world, which you might expect perhaps to find in Rome, or in Paris, are here in Oxford. And here we are in the great Renaissance gallery surrounded by great Italian masterpieces: paintings by Uccello, by Tintoretto, by Titian, a head of Michelangelo just down there. Wonderful objects, which makes this one of the great, great world museums. But what’s really special about the Ashmolean, is not just the quality of the collections, but also the magnificent way in which they are displayed. In this stunning new wing, built as
part of a major redevelopment in 2009, civilizations speak to one another in a way that’s never been seen before. So fifth-century Greece is just across the way from fifth-century India. Thirteenth-century Africa from thirteenth-century China. In real historical terms these civilizations did communicate with one another, so it’s just fantastic to see those conversations being kept up by the artefacts here today. You can just see different things and similarities and differences between them and you wouldn’t make that link if they hadn’t done that. There are over a million objects in the Ashmolean’s collection, only a small fraction are on display, but anyone with an interest is welcome to
come behind the scenes to a study room like this and ask to see a particular object. This afternoon a group of history students are investigating Greek coins with the Ashmolean’s curator Henry Kim. As a part of Oxford University, the Ashmolean is at the forefront of research and teaching, encouraging students from all walks of
life to better understand the world around them. My favourite thing about the Ashmolean is that we, as curators and lecturers, teach straight from the objects. It’s a rare opportunity for students and it really does add to the value of
their studies. it’s really useful as a method of
teaching, it’s much more tactile, much more hands-on, and so you you end up remembering it for much longer. For its younger scholars the Ashmolean’s
education department offers an exciting programme of school tours, family activities and museum trails. I like doing the hunt thing where you have that sheet of paper and you go looking for different things and ticking them off. I liked doing that. Well we went and we handled some Egyptian objects. We liked the ostrich egg a lot. The cultural experience cannot be
complete without a place for visitors to sit and reflect upon their time in the Museum, and the Ashmolean has two: a fine rooftop restaurant; and a popular cafe where visitors can refresh themselves over a lunch or a cup of tea. Then, once revitalized, visitors may like to
finish their day by attending one of the many talks our
events hosted by the Ashmolean every week. This evening the Countess of Carnarvon is giving a talk about her ancestor’s role in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. I think the Ashmolean is a wonderful museum and I think what they’ve done with it, and with the new galleries they’ve created,
it’s a huge success. Lots a little things to see without feeling
too pressurized, and then I like the tea and coffee downstairs as well. This has been a time of great change,
great and exciting change, in the Ashmolean and there’s always something new
happening here. New acquisitions, new temporary exhibitions – a wonderful run of temporary exhibitions. If you haven’t been for a long time
please come and visit us soon. The Ashmolean Museum is closing for the day but coming here reminds me again what a vital and unique role this place has to play. We are creatures of a shared, communal memory. As a species we survived by communicating and by learning from one another. And that’s why we preserve all of this. Not so that we can live in the past, but so that we can learn from it and look forward, together, confidently to a shared future. The new Ashmolean Museum is a shining incarnation of that certainty, of that human hope, and that is why it is so
precious. It reminds us to remember to think
better. It also reminds us, as the poet
Wordsworth put it, that although humanity has many faces across both time and space, we, all of us, share one human heart.

3 thoughts on “A Day At The Ashmolean Museum”

  1. Ms Hughes says,,,the Countess of Carnarvon is giving a talk on her ancestors role in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, I presume the ancestor was her grandfather The talk would be short,,,four words,,,he provided the money, What about Howard Carter,,a two day talk would be too short, As Kenneth Clark said,,,the English aristocracy were as ignorant as swans What an insult to swans, How the English love a Lord

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