The Ashmolean came into existence when the wealthy antiquary Elias Ashmole gifted his collection to the University in 1682. He did so ‘because the knowledge of Nature is very necessary to human life and health.’ It opened as Britain’s first public museum, and the world’s first university museum.
Though the collection has evolved considerably, the founding principle remains: that knowledge of humanity across cultures and across times is important to society.
Elias Ashmole acquired his collection from two gardeners: John Tradescant, father and son. The Tradescants were no ordinary gardeners; they were employed by the wealthy Earl of Salisbury. The Tradescants voyaged overseas, travelling the known world and shipping back new and exotic plant specimens for the Earl’s gardens. In the course of their travels they also acquired a remarkable collection of curiosities that included botanical, geological and zoological items as well as man-made objects. The Tradescant’s themselves established a museum in Lambeth, South London, known as ‘The Ark’ to house their collection in 1634. A visitor to this original museum commented that ‘a man might in one day behold…more curiosities than he should see if he spent all his life in travel.’ The collection contained treasures such as the mantle of Pocahontas's father (Powhatan) and the stuffed body of the last dodo ever seen in Europe.
When Ashmole gifted this collection to the University, it was combined with an older University collection, which included Guy Fawkes’s lantern and Jacob’s Coat of Many Colours (long since lost). The original Ashmolean Museum opened on Broad Street in 1683, in the building that is now the Museum of the History of Science. Members of the public were admitted to the Ashmolean Museum from the outset (a controversial policy in the 17th century). Alongside the collection, this building was designed to house a chemistry laboratory and rooms for undergraduate lectures.
The Museum went through an unsettled period where the quality of the collections and rationale of its displays began to be increasingly criticised. In the mid 18th century an audit of the Ashmolean collections revealed the extent of decay and loss of original specimens. Most notably, the Tradescant’s famous dodo was in a such an advanced state of decay it was considered beyond redemption and removed from display (today the head and one foot survive in the University Museum of Natural History).
In 1823 the fortunes of the Ashmolean collections began to change for the better under the reforming stewardship of brothers John and Philip Duncan – John was appointed as Keeper in 1823 and succeeded by Philip in 1829. In 1826 an ‘Introduction to the Catalogue of the Ashmolean Museum’ was published, which proposed a detailed consideration of prevailing taxonomic systems of object organisation. A full catalogue of the collections was completed in 1836 by Philip Duncan. These documents reveal the extent that the Duncan brothers, and the donors they attracted, transformed the collections with fresh specimens.
When the Ashmolean had first opened, the building in Broad Street was large enough for laboratories and lecture rooms which fulfilled the University’s requirements in the teaching of natural sciences. In the early 19th century the explosive development of these disciplines called for expanded facilities. This led, in 1860, to the University opening its second museum, on Parks Road, in the building that still remains the site of the University Museum of Natural History. This impressive building now holds ten natural science departments: Astronomy, Geometry, Experimental Physics, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Geology, Zoology, Anatomy, Physiology and Medicine. The founding collection of this new museum was formed using surviving natural history specimens from the old Ashmolean collection.
This left the Ashmolean somewhat at a loss – a significant portion of the most important objects in the Museum were no longer there. Into this void stepped Sir Arthur Evans, who became Keeper of the Ashmolean in 1884. Sir Arthur was an Oxford scholar, traveller, and son of a famous academic of prehistory. In his 24-year keepership he transformed the museum by acquiring an internationally important archaeological collection and establishing a first-rate research institution. In 1894 he moved the collection from Broad Street to Beaumont Street behind the University Art Galleries and in 1908 the two institutions combined to create the current Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Sir Arthur Evans also engineered in 1922 for the Bodleian’s collection of coins to form part of the Ashmolean collections, the core of which is now the Museum’s Heberden Coin Room.
The 20th century saw some more significant acquisitions, notably the collections of the Indian Institute, which resulted in establishing separate departments for Western and Eastern art. In 1959 the collection of classical casts established itself as a separate department from antiquities. The creation of the departments as they currently stand (Western Art, Eastern Art, Antiquities, Cast Gallery and the Coin Room) brought about a new emphasis in scholarship in these specialist fields and a new impetus to collect around these different areas of interest.
The Ashmolean was refurbished in 2009, which opened to multiple-award-winning acclaim. The Ashmolean Director is Xa Sturgis.
'Wonderful things, exquisitely displayed' – Bill Bryson
'To travel through the galleries is to be handed a round-the-world ticket on a tour of history' – The Times