East meets West in the University of Oxford’s new-look museum of art and archaeology

Ashmolean bridges the cultural divide


The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology reopens on 7 November, following a £61m expansion project. With 39 new galleries, it will nearly double the display space. The entire collection of the University of Oxford museum is being presented around the theme of “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time”.

Founded in 1683, the Ashmolean lays claim to being the world’s oldest museum open to the public. Its main building, designed by Charles Cockerell, dates back to 1845. The new extension by Rick Mather Architects has been skilfully inserted behind the Cockerell museum (replacing unsuitable late 19th-century buildings), and it is invisible from the street. On walking through the Cockerell portico and through the double doors, now restored to their full height, there is a light-filled atrium beyond giving views of its six levels. The plain modern interiors of Mather’s new galleries, which are connected by an elegant staircase, contrast with the ornate Victorian rooms by Cockerell. Architecturally, the development is a success, giving a feeling of openness, and providing intriguing vistas between different galleries and floors.

Christopher Brown, director of the museum since 1998, says that when the development was originally proposed, his curators suggested that the space should be divided by giving a floor to each of the museum’s five departments (antiquities, western art, eastern art, coins and casts). He soon rejected this approach, wanting something that would be more intellectually ambitious, and meaningful for visitors.

Inspired partly by looking at a first-century Gandharan sculpture from present day Pakistan of Buddha in partially Graeco-Roman style, Brown opted to stress the links between cultures, and the meeting of the east and west. Curators worked closely with academics and the exhibition design firm Metaphor to rethink the collections.

Different floors now cover a broad sweep of global history, each with its own introductory gallery and smaller thematic spaces. For example, visitors discover the ancient world on the ground floor, and the medieval and modern on the floors above. On this journey there is a room comparing ancient cities around the Mediterranean, including Rome and Constantinople, as well as displays on Asian crossroads. The human image across time is an example of a thematic display. The use of glass in Mather’s architecture means that links keep opening up between different cultures and periods. For instance, one can look through a glass case of Chinese ceramics down to a lower gallery with Islamic tiles, and across to a European ceramics display. The new galleries now make it possible for the museum to show many of its light-sensitive objects for the first time.

“There is probably no museum anywhere which has adopted this approach to world antiquities and art, with different civilisations given their own room or rooms in a chronological sequence,” says Brown. He says that this would be impossible for a smaller museum that lacks a broad collection or for a very large one like London’s British Museum, which has so much to present.

The upper gallery floor has a suite of temporary exhibition rooms. The opening shows will focus on the Ashmolean and its development, with “The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy” scheduled for September 2010. A new rooftop restaurant with panoramic views of Oxford crowns the museum’s redevelopment.

The building project cost £57m, with £15m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The major private donor is Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, through his Linbury Trust. Although his contribution remains confidential, it is believed that it may eventually total around £10m. Saudi crown prince Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has donated £2m for the Islamic galleries.

So far £45m has been raised, a figure that has remained almost unchanged since the beginning of the year—and this means that £12m remains to be found for the building. Brown remains optimistic, but the shortfall may be partly underwritten by the University of Oxford. In addition, the Ashmolean needs to establish a £4m endowment, and Brown is hoping that this will be funded by a private donor.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Ashmolean bridges the cultural divide'


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