‘Thank you. It’s magnificent,’ said Philip Pullman as he opened the new extension at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford at the end of October.
‘Thank you. It’s magnificent,’ said Philip Pullman as he opened the new extension at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford at the end of October. And magnificent it certainly is, a triumphant reinvention of the Ashmolean, with 39 new galleries being added in this inspired development designed by Rick Mather Associates. The orientation of the museum has been radically altered, bringing archaeology and antiquity into the foreground. Given the roots of the Ashmolean, founded in 1683 with the Tradescant Collection, and with other collections including the Arundel Marbles, which arrived in 1755, this is a natural and timely adjustment to the steering.
The visitor is greeted by the colossal plaster cast of Apollo, after a Roman version of a Greek original, pointing left to the Aegean galleries, where in a sense he came from. The architecture allows the galleries to intermingle, so that Ancient Iran flows into the Aegean civilisations, which flow into Cyprus, Greece and Rome — which flow into the shop. Islam, India and Asia interact; Rome runs into England; and West meets East in a gallery that itself flows naturally into the first of the Western Art galleries in C.R. Cockerell’s original 1845 building, where gold-backed early Renaissance panels are shown.
Mather’s extension, its floors linked by a staircase that makes the dotted line of a leaf falling from skylight to basement, allows visitors to understand how civilisations and eras change and flow into and out of one another as they always did and as they will continue to do. This progression is inevitable, and it is the responsibility of museums, particularly university museums, to keep its evidence always in sight.
Paid for by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the University of Oxford, and the Linbury and other trusts and donations, the extension has proved that the Ashmolean is not only Britain’s first museum, but also among the foremost in the world. Leading on archaeology, as the new building now directs, the Ashmolean reflects the pattern of human history, and proclaims its own foundation in early gifts and purchases such as Pocahontas’s cloak, Guy Fawkes’s iron lantern and the Crondall Hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold coins. These and 10,000 other telling objects place the Western Art collection, which has long been the Ashmolean’s principal post-war focus, into its proper human context.
The new structure replaces a series of worn-out sheds at the back. These rooms were grim and visited by few, except students and school parties doing Egypt. Although there are other routes, to get to the art galleries the visitor has now to go through the new museum, across glass bridges, up the falling-leaf staircase, retracing the path taken by civilisations for 8,000 years, to reach Uccello, Titian and Turner. And Titian is well represented, by two paintings acquired by Dr Christopher Brown, the Ashmolean’s director: two Titians and the completion of a £61 million development in under a decade must be a world record, certainly a personal best.
‘The importance of the new development lies in what it allows us as a museum to do: present, conserve, explain,’ said Brown. Preparation is impeccable, and explanation is clear. While it can show only the tip of the iceberg, the Conservation Gallery describes the work of conservators, from Agatha Christie’s amateur assessment of the Nimrud ivories in the 1920s to modern notepaper grazed and eaten by silverfish in the 1980s.
In the upper galleries there is a graphic display telling the story of the development from 2001, ending with the date: ‘November 2009 — Open (Ready or Not).’ Well, all was not quite ready for the opening, as some display cases were yet to be filled. A museum opening cannot be hurried and, while by the time this is published all the cases should be complete, it was a brave decision not to flinch the opening date because it showed those visitors early enough to see the work in progress that a living museum is constantly in flux, and an occasional dark display case is all part of the process.