The phrase ‘museum’ does not conjure up the most exciting of thoughts. Dusty ornaments, indecipherable bone matter and stale pastries from a dated café might be more like it, but that’s until you’ve visited Oxford’s newest and most enlightening attraction.
The Ashmolean Museum reopened on November 7th 2009 to awaiting academics, tourists and curious members of the public subsequent to a £61 million development. Early reviews showed that architect Rick Mather’s majestic fusion of old and new, quirky and traditional presented what was once your archetypal museum as an entirely new concept. The now illuminated space is modern yet inviting, a trove of wonders to be unwrapped and visually devoured. Its chic, contemporary design contrasts with Charles Cockerell’s original 1845 Beaumont Street construction and allows the collections to be viewed in a novel and interesting way. The transformation is seamless and fitting to the space. Mather’s work must not be underestimated. The Ashmolean Museum was once an imposing hub, dark and cavernous, which needed reinvigorating so that its staggering contents could be aptly and righteously displayed.
As one enters the new Ashmolean, the central atrium sheds light throughout the rooms over the five floors of ancient artefacts and paintings. The galleries are varied in shape and size, with each one presenting its contents in a new way, revealing new ways of perceiving. The museum, by its own admission, displays a collection of collections. On my lunchtime tour, the guide, Lynne, informed us that medals worn by the Ashmolean’s original benefactor, Elias Ashmole, were unfortunately kept behind the scenes as there simply wasn’t room to hang them next to his portrait. She was right. The sheer quality of the museum’s possessions came to light when I realised that there wasn’t anything that one could forgo in this particular gallery to make room for old Ashmole’s medals. Not a distinguished art expert myself, I found the Ashmolean’s educational provisions very helpful. There is a real sense that the staff and academics here want you to learn and understand what you’re seeing. I know I for one wonder aimlessly around these places all to often without really grasping what I came for. The two tours I attended, ‘Cracking Codes in Paintings’ on a Tuesday and the weekly Saturday highlights tour, were both memorable and insightful, without a hint of that creeping shroud of boredom that regularly blights museum tours.
Both locals and visitors to the Oxfordshire area will be pleased to see the impetus that is given to displays and art linked to the county. It’s always nice to learn about a place you know of or share history with. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s artistic views of the High Street in Oxford faithfully depict our city pre-capitalism. Turning a corner and bumping into a Titan really exemplified how diverse and well-curated the collections in this majestic building truly are. The book accompanying the museum does not overstate when it defines the collections as the result of ‘four centuries of evolving knowledge about the world’s greatest and oldest civilisations’.
The cultural feast that awaits is exponentially enhanced by Oxford’s first rooftop dining room, which sits like a trophy atop this marvellous achievement. This is no ordinary museum café but a restaurant in its own right, with prices to match, so be prepared. Although the museum contains a café, a visit to the restaurant really completes the experience. The menu is a European-Asian fusion, containing sharing platters, charcuterie and dishes for both small and slightly larger appetites. All include new and pioneering cuisine, rarely seen in Oxford. There’s veal, babaganoush, salt cod croquettes, bresola, gazpacho and even a baby cuttlefish, chickpea & saffron stew. And if you’re feeling flash, go for dinner and have the chateaubriand for two. This is innovative yet fairly rustic; you get the feeling that those responsible see food as a convivial and a source of enjoyment in itself. The wine list is extensive and well arranged, with a good range of both old and new world wines by the glass.
Gone are the dowdy connotations with obligatory boredom and wasted holidays, the Ashmolean Museum is one attarction which should entice us all. The exemplary interior and brilliant facilities make it a must-visit for smart, stylish art, architecture and food. You’d hardly believe that it was Britain’s first museum, but it seems that where the Ashmolean leads, other can only try and keep up.