The Ashmolean Museum: the world’s first university museum and Britain’s oldest public museum turns 339

The Ashmolean – a museum visited by many and correctly pronounced by few. After 339 years, it still stands proudly in Oxford city centre, home to a range of weird and wonderful artefacts that have stood the test of time. With Oxford being home to the world’s oldest English-speaking university, it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s also home to Britain’s first public museum and the world’s first university museum.

The history of the Ashmolean begins in 1682 and a man named Elias Ashmole. You probably haven’t given much thought to the title of this world famous museum except that it is a peculiar word, but it comes from the name of a wealthy antique dealer. Ashmole donated his collection to the university and the following year, in 1683, the world’s first university museum was born.

Although the Ashmolean’s collection is considered important to society, as described on their website, an “uncomfortable truth” remains that many artifacts were “obtained through colonial power”. Ashmole’s collection comes from two gardeners, John Tradescant and his son, who traveled in search of “exotic” plant specimens for their gardens.

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During their travels, they acquired many botanical and geological artifacts, including man-made objects, one of which was a wall hanging of Pocahontas’ father, Powhatan. Ashmole donated his acquired collection to the university, adding to their growing selection of significant items such as Guy Fawkes’ lantern and Jacob’s coat of many colors (now lost, sadly).

On May 24, 1683, the Ashmolean Museum opened on Broad Street, in the building that is now the History of Science Museum. Then in the 1800s there were significant expansions as the university experienced a boom which saw the university build a second museum on Parks Road which is now known as the History Museum nature and houses many “surviving natural history specimens” from the original Ashmolean collection.

Since many important Ashmolean artifacts were moved to the new site, the museum was redefined. Sir Arthur Evans, who made several discoveries at Knossos in Crete, became ‘Keeper of the Ashmolean’ in 1884. During the 24 years he held this position, the museum was transformed to house ‘archaeological collections of international importance”.

In 1894 Evans moved this expanding collection to Beaumont Street where the current Ashmolean Museum is located. Collections from Greece, Egypt and the Middle East, using the British colonial powers, filled the halls. The 20th century saw acquisitions from the Orient, in fact the Ashmolean now houses the largest collection of Chinese green ware outside of China and “one of the finest collections of modern Chinese art in Europe”.

When it was renovated in 2009, the Ashmolean Museum received multiple accolades with The Times commenting, “To walk through the galleries is to receive a round-the-world ticket for a tour of history.” However, due to the dubious history of many museums in Britain, the Ashmolean said: “We fully recognize our responsibility to decolonise our thinking, our language and our practices to reflect a wider range of perspectives and stories.”

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