Oxford's Ashmolean Museum re-opens

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© Richard Byant/www.arcaid.co.uk
Posted: Fri Nov 20 2009

A mere hour from central London, Oxford's Ashmolean is a museum any city would be proud of. Ossian Ward visits the brand-new extension and its ancient and eccentric collections.

Not only can south London boast the world's first purpose-built art gallery (Sir John Soane's Dulwich Picture Gallery, opened in 1817), but it turns out that the world's oldest public museum started life just off the South Lambeth Road, in the 1630s. John Tradescant was a well-travelled gardener who brought back all sorts of specimens for perusal at his Vauxhall home, which visitors dubbed 'The Ark' in recognition of his exhaustive collection of international curios. Tradescant's treasure trove ñ which included a piece of the True Cross, the hand of a mermaid and the Native Indian mantle of Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas ñ fell into the hands of lawyer and antiquarian Elias Ashmole before wending its way to Oxford in 1677, to form the basis of the university's outstanding museum, the Ashmolean, now newly extended and expanded for the twenty-first century.

From humble beginnings, the Ashmolean really took shape in 1845 when its newly built Greek revival faÁade earned it the nickname of 'temple of the arts' and it began acquiring antique sculpture and pottery, decorative art and masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Uccello. Although the back half of the original building has had to be knocked down to make way for the new addition ñ a £61 million project designed by London-based American architect Rick Mather that adds 39 galleries and nearly doubles the available exhibition space ñ the higgledy-piggledy feel of discovery has thankfully been maintained in the new upstairs-downstairs layout.While zig-zagging through six different levels of concourses, bridges and mezzanines that link to the old site, there's a sense of continuation with Oxford's warren-like alleyways and back streets just outside the windows and yet simultaneously, of somehow always being right at the heart of everything.

In keeping with Tradescant's early displays, the whole world is on show and somewhat jumbled up, instead of being split by country or continent into individual rooms like the British Museum (there's clearly some rivalry here with the BM and their tagline, 'A museum of the world, for the world'). The Ashmolean's brave thematic hang, called 'Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time', charts influences and connections that spread along trade routes and through the generations, exploring how wood from Brazil ended up in Austrian musical instruments, why a Mexican tile might have been painted with a caricatured Chinaman and how the term 'chintz' came from an Indian word meaning to 'sprinkle' or 'spray'.

But this globetrotting approach does get disorienting in the 'Asian Crossroads' section, where Constantinople, Damascus and Jerusalem all flash by in quick succession. Added to this initial bewilderment, stemming from an unfamiliarity with the new layout as much as anything else, the extension's open and airy feel does encourage a certain amount of drifting, drawing you to the literal high-point of the building and the cafÈ diner at the top of the atrium ñ good for lattÈs as well as views of the dreaming spires. Maybe some of this aimlessness was also down to Rick Mather-fatigue, because after his recent add-ons to the aforementioned Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Wallace Collection and the National Maritime Museum, as well as a new home for the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, I think I need a break from all his rectilinear slickness, ceiling-to-floor glass walls and swooshy sliding doors.

These are small quibbles to make when actually the neutral architecture respectfully foregrounds the wondrous Ashmolean collection, of which there's no criticism here. Tradescant would have been proud too, even if few of his original objects survived the centuries in between ñ the famous stuffed dodo rotted a long time ago and there's no sign of a mermaid's hand ñ but at least Indian Chief Powhatan's cape does take pride of place. Come to think of it, we'd be more than happy to have this place on our doorstep. In fact, the campaign starts now: south London wants its museum back.

Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology. First Great Western trains run to Oxford from Paddington ñ journey time is around an hour.

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