The oldest museum in the world reopens its doors tomorrow, after a mammoth five-year revamp. Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has enjoyed a 61million cash injection into its ageing building, recasting all but its Victorian Cockerell building facade. Rick Mather’s new creation allows the museum’s myriad treasures much more space, adding 39 galleries and 10,000sq metres of exhibition space.
The museum, founded in 1683, has been closed to the public since December last year, as the final pieces have been put in place. Funding has come from a number of high-profile sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, Linbury Trust (Lord Sainsbury’s charity) and Oxford Thinking; a campaign for the University of Oxford. Fans can have their name inscribed on the museum’s ‘Benefactor Bridge’ for 50 each, and some galleries have already been sponsored: Saudi Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud is patron of the Islamic Arts collection.
“Rick Mather made very good use of space,” says museum director Dr Christopher Brown. “Such a large undertaking meant that we could think anew about how to display the collection.”
Three thousand object mounts have been created, lit by 1,370 new spotlights. The museum’s curators hope its cutting-edge design will allow visitors to see its many wonderful objects in the context of the culture to which they belonged. The Ashmolean strives to show the progression through human history. Visitors can walk through Greece and Rome through to the Near East and India. The museum’s ancient highlights include Egyptian mummy portraits, a 9,000 year-old skull from Jericho and the Anglo-Saxon Alfred Jewel. The museum has endured some
scandal recently, as Egypt’s Supreme Council of Anitiquities suspended its excavations over allegedly ‘stolen’ artefacts.
The Ashmolean was founded 326 years ago by revered antiquary Elias Ashmole, after its first five-year construction. It is the world’s oldest public museum, beating Florence’s Uffizi (built in 1581 but not then publicly open) by 82 years. Its last development came in 1845, when its much-loved main building was commissioned by Charles Cockerell. Much of the museum’s celebrated Minoan and Greek collection came from the expeditions of archaeologistArthur Evans, famous for his discovery of Crete’s Palace of Knossos. The Ashmolean houses some of the world’s greatest ancient treasures. Only time can tell if its latest chapter proves as successful as its past.
Look out for an interview with Ashmolean curator Dr Jack Green on Heritage Key – coming soon!