Monday, 9 November 2009

First Impressions: The Ashmolean Transformed

Peter Furtado, the previous editor of History Today, comments on Rick Mather’s extension of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, which re-opened on Saturday and reveals a rich collection of old favourites and hidden treasures.

New-look Ashmolean is Britain's museum of the decade

The £61 million rebuilding of Britain’s oldest public museum doubles the exhibition space and increases the number of objects on display by 600%. It has been widely praised as an architectural and museological triumph.

The old museum, housed behind an 1845 Neoclassical facade by Charles Cockerell,
was a rabbit-warren of crowded and sometimes rather forbidding rooms. Yet it housed a remarkable collection spanning world history, from Pre-dynastic Egypt and the Minoan civilisation, through medieval and Renaissance Europe to modern Oriental ceramics.

Some of the long-familiar objects are of the highest quality, including the Alfred Jewel, a Stradivarius violin and drawings by Michelangelo and Raphael. Many equally fine pieces now have been put alongside them, with pride of place going to a newly identified and recently acquired Titian. Others such as T.E. Lawrence’s Arabian robes have been allowed out of conservation for the first time, thanks to the building’s improved environmental controls.

The new museum, which opened on November 7th , looks almost identical to the old from outside - except that the old blue doors, which had been kept mainly closed, have been replaced by a fine revolving glass door that invites the visitor into the airy atrium. The new extension itself is hidden by surrounding buildings.

Mather is a doyen of museum architects, who has skilfully merged old and new at the National Maritime Museum, Wallace Collection and Dulwich Art Gallery extensions, as well as several other projects within Oxford itself.

Inside, the space is transformed, though Cockerell’s gracious interior, such as the Ionic columns and the cantilever staircase, remains, with the collections they housed (some, like the dark Egyptian gallery, are to be redone over the coming years). The new extension includes glass bridges, an atrium and a cascading staircase conducting the visitor through the collections.

These collections are taken out of their typological ghettoes, and arranged through 39 galleries and four levels in a broadly chronological structure which climbs up the building and draws attention to the cross-fertilisation between cultures.

The lower ground floor contains a kind of power-pack for the whole enterprise, with an excellent room on the Tradescant Ark (the cabinet of curiosities with which the museum began in the 1630s) and its eponymous founder Elias Ashmole, plus others about collecting, identifying and conserving the museum’s objects. The glass bridges, leading back and forth across time, allow the visitor to catch glimpses across time. The result is both visually and intellectually exciting.

This display gives a sense of a museum absolutely packed with treasures. It is the work of the design group Metaphor, who were responsible for the display of the Terracotta Army in the British Museum in 2007, in association with the museum team led by director Sir Christopher Brown. The result is a beautiful, exciting and revelatory experience, which is accessible yet free from the distractions of unnecessary electronic wizardry.

Unfortunately, not everything was ready for the opening on Saturday. Some cases are unfinished, some rooms are full of boxes and others quite empty. Many labels were also missing, making it hard to judge the interpretation. But thankfully there are relatively few signs of the patronising ‘hands-on’ displays that interrupt the enjoyment of many other modern galleries. There is, though, a major new educational centre and a real effort to engage new and young audiences.

When the visitor has completed the journey, there is a choice of refreshments: a fine new rooftop restaurant or the long-established café in the vaults – which has long been the best place in Oxford to meet friends, to talk books and business.

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