Located in historic Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology plays host to one of the most outstanding collections of historical and artistic artefacts in Europe. It attracts over 1 million visitors each year, from tourists who simply want to see the sights, to dedicated historians and university students who want to rake through the remnants of civilisation, from its early beginnings to the modern day.
While there are dedicated study rooms for those undertaking research, the museum is open to families who want to give their children a broader understanding of art and its evolution. With free admission, exciting exhibitions and a programme of creative events, the Ashmolean offers a chance for everyone to enjoy what it has to offer.
Peopled with friendly and informative staff, it is a warm and welcoming institution where you can spend a day and travel through eight millennia of human history. The museum is immediately impressive – even before you step inside. A beautiful, neoclassical building, its entrance is lined with colonnades that support an ornate portico, embellished with curling volutes and elaborate moldings. However, what we know now as the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology began as two separate institutions: the original Ashmolean Museum and the Oxford University Art Collection. The University Art Collection was established in the 1620s, as a small collection of paintings and curios. Over the next 280 years, the collection grew and flourished, to include everything from Anglo-Saxon art and Raphael drawings to relics from Ancient Egypt and Nubia.
The history of the Ashmolean Museum
Elias Ashmole was the man behind the Oxford museum. A keen collector of antiques and artefacts, he was bequeathed a vast collection of unusual plants, mineral samples and artistic oddities from around the world. In 1677, his acquisitions grew to a point where they needed rehoming and the beginnings of the Ashmolean Museum were founded. The two buildings opened their combined doors in 1683 and took the unprecedented step of making themselves available to the public, making the Ashmolean the first to do so in the UK and cementing its position as one of the oldest museums in the world.
Today, the collections found in the Ashmolean Museum are an ever-expanding mosaic that details the development of mankind, through works of art and examples of our history, spanning virtually every corner of the globe. There are representations from all the great civilisations, including the most comprehensive collection of Egyptian predynastic artefacts outside Cairo. In addition, you’ll find the largest assembly of Raphael drawings in the world; a boast you might easily expect to come from a gallery in Paris or Rome, rather than Oxford.
Crossing Cultures and Crossing Times
In 2009 a new wing was added to the museum, allowing the institution to refine the way it displays certain civilisations and allow visitors to appreciate the similarities and differences between them. Pieces of art and archaeological discoveries from Fifth Century Greece are juxtaposed with relics from Fifth Century India, while Thirteenth Century China and Thirteenth Century Africa are similarly reflected against one another. Using this unique method, known as Crossing Cultures Crossing Times, visitors can more easily appreciate how one culture can influence another and where their paths diverge.
The Ashmolean is treasured by students and historians, alike. Although there are over 1 million objects in the collection itself, only a small percentage of them are actually on display. However, whether you’re a student, historian or simply someone with an interest in a specific era, style or culture, anyone can gain access to one of the behind-the-scenes study rooms and ask to see particular objects. Curators can answer any questions and are happy to wax lyrical about their finds, for as long as you are happy to listen! Being part of a first-hand learning experience makes the information that much more interesting and that much more memorable.
Hands-on activities for younger visitors
For younger enthusiasts, there are stimulating programmes, museum trails and activities designed for families. To reinforce art and archaeology as current and relevant topics, there are plenty of opportunities for young visitors to handle objects and artefacts that are thousands of years old. Events are engaging and exciting, such as the chance to meet a Saxon Wolf Warrior or a Roman soldier, to learn to make a Chinese dragon puppet or to take part in one of the regular ‘Archaeological Adventures’. All the activities are free, although there is a suggested donation of £1 per child.
Digesting your day
A visit to any museum wouldn’t be complete without a space in which to sit and reflect upon the experience. To this end, the Ashmolean has two areas in which contemplative visitors can relax and talk, whilst enjoying some delicious food. The Ashmolean Dining Room is a spectacular affair; a rooftop restaurant, serving authentic European cuisine, in chic and contemporary surroundings. Visitors are advised to book tables in advance to ensure they get a place. However, for something more casual, the Ashmolean Café is located on the lower ground floor, close to the museum’s shopping area. Here, against a beautiful, vaulted backdrop, visitors can enjoy fresh cakes and pastries, warming soup and an array of sandwiches. The nearby shops offer unique gifts inspired by the exhibits in the collections.
Planning your visit
Oxford is easily accessible by car or rail and, with the museum in the city centre, it’s convenient and simple to find. The nearest train station is Oxford; approximately 10 minutes from the Ashmolean, on foot. The Oxford Bus Company runs regular services to the museum and the bus station is only five minutes away. For those who prefer to travel by car, Oxford is close to both the M4 and the M40. There is plenty of parking available in the city; the car park in Gloucester Green is closest to the museum.
In most areas of the Ashmolean, stills photography is permitted – although, to protect and preserve the more delicate artefacts, it is requested that flashes are not used. There are a number of objects that cannot be photographed and these are highlighted with ‘No Photography’ signs. The use of tripods and video cameras is not permitted and any photography is undertaken on the understanding that none of the images captured will be used for any commercial gain.
The museum is easy to navigate, with the Information Desk to be found in the central atrium. Visitors can also take advantage of the Orientation Galleries, which present the key themes to be found on each floor, allowing you to either take in the collection as a whole or seek out exhibits that are of particular interest. The collections are presented over five floors and are supported with hour-long talks, such as the Closer Look Tours, the Lunchtime Gallery Talks and the Highlight Tours. All of these are free, but donations are welcomed. In addition, while there is no need to book, numbers are limited for these tours, so those wishing to participate are encouraged to arrive 15 minutes early.
A contemporary and exciting attraction
The history of the Ashmolean has seen it transform from a dusty, academia-centric collection of curios and paintings to a contemporary and exciting attraction that draws visitors from all over the world. After a £61million renovation, it has gained 39 new galleries and more space in which to create interactive and imaginative displays. Christopher Brown, the Museum Director, says that “from the outset, our ambition has been to create not just an improved and expanded version of Britain’s oldest public museum, but something significantly different in kind: a new way of showcasing the Ashmolean’s remarkable collections, for the benefit of the widest possible audience.”
With a history as rich as the artefacts it houses, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is a must for anyone with even the faintest interest in art and archaeology.