The Ashmolean Museum Preview Review...

Some things seem eternal. Before I began to study museums academically, I would often walk into them and imagine that this is how they always had been and always would be. For me, they were something constant and permanent, an anchor if you like.

I now know that the truth is never so simple. I have changed, and so have the museums that I grew up with. Better or worse, change is a fact of our existence. Sometimes it is subtle, at others disconcertingly clear. And often you have to ask yourself “How many times can I change the head and handle of the mop and still call it that same mop I bought twenty years ago?”

A museum which has undergone a recent and dramatic change is the Ashmolean in Oxford. Billed as the UK's oldest museum, HLF funding has allowed this institution to enter a new era in it's history. I worked on the project over the summer (so please, allow me a little bias) and on the 31st October 2009 I returned for the staff preview before the public opening on the 7th November. I thought I'd write up a review for you. So here you are. It's my personal response – there will be plenty of more academic reviews. There are pictures too, by the way :)

Project Data

Cost: £61 million

Funders: Heritage Lottery Fund and Donations

Architect: Rick Mather

Designers: Metaphor and Curatorial Staff

Opening Date: 7th November 2009

The Mission

The mission of the Ashmolean Museum is to make its collections of art and archaeology available to the widest possible audience, now and in the future, by exhibiting, preserving and interpreting its objects for study, enjoyment and inspiration, and to promote the understanding of them by teaching and research at the highest level.”

How do you redisplay and care for a collection in an old building? It can be very hard: I'm sure many of you know that. What is the solution? At the Ashmolean, though the famous listed Cockerell building was retained, the architect Rick Mather has built an entirely new building which replaces a previous extension. This building doubles the available display space and allows for up to date storage, offices and conservation facilities for a staff which are ever growing and developing technologically. Objects previously hidden have come out on display, and the rooftop restaurant is the first of its kind in Oxford. A new Education Centre has been built, with sinks, tables and books so that groups of every age can handle and explore the collections. Accessibility is good and interactives have been designed which are unobtrusive and actually treat the user as fairly intelligent whilst still being fun – an unusual thing to find.

So far, so good. But does it work? It's certainly spectacular upon entrance. After making your way up the steps towards the old façade, you enter through revolving doors into what can only be described as a totally unexpected well of light. The first thing that struck me was how bright and airy the place was, with pale walls and floors, and huge amounts of glass reflecting back the light from the large window in the stairwell. Glass is prevalent throughout the building, in the barriers for the staircases and bridges which give access to the other floors, and in the sometimes overly reflective display cases. Fortunately, the pale stone floor is not – while it is beautiful in its way, it is highly susceptible to scuffing and damage, and the practical aspects of keeping it clean don't even bear thinking about. The solid walls and floors make the place echo, and though the day I visited was obviously particularly busy, I can see there being potential acoustic problems in the future.

The work of the lighting technicians is stunning – until I took up my internship there, I never understood quite how difficult lighting a display is. You have to consider the outer lighting, the object's conservation needs, the needs and problems caused by other objects in the case and the parts of the case themselves. Some objects seem not to have been lit, notably only the painting of Elias Ashmole was lit in the Ark to Ashmolean gallery. But when the lighting is successful, it really takes your breath away.

The Results of Successful Lighting in Asian Crossroads

Throughout the different galleries, colours have been chosen to suit the nature of the collections displayed – in my opinion, the India Gallery is particularly successful in this regard, the deep reds and cumin-yellows evoking heat and spice.

India Gallery

These colours frequently echo those found in the older part of the building, deep reds, greens and blues also building the background for the displays of the paintings in Chamber's Hall and the Pre-Raphaelite Galleries. There is evidence of the old throughout the new spaces, older wooden cases alongside the contemporary glass and metal ones. But this is done with a subtlety and care which prevents the strange juxtaposition from jarring.

A Cabinet Given By Arthur Evans, former Curator, in Ark to Ashmolean

The juxtaposition is, I think, less subtle when it comes to the transition between the parts of the building themselves. I don't say that it's less successful – to be honest, I am still unsure as to how I feel about it, but the experience was a strange one. The light and echoing space gives way to a softer, more muted atmosphere. People talked in the new the old, they whispered. Before, they had, they reflected and pondered. Traditional spaces are no bad thing. For me, it was a welcome relief, because as much as I had enjoyed the Mather building, I needed just to stop and gain sanctuary for a while. Those older galleries gave me the space in which to do so, gave a sense of history and age and permanence, a solid backbone to the shiny redisplay. It was odd, however, to see vestiges of the old labels in these spaces. New labels had been put in for most exhibits, and to me it made those that did not seem forgotten.

The Chamber's Hall, a Survival.

The thirty-nine galleries follow a new display strategy, “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time”, which is intended to show that the cultures which created the world we live in today did not develop in isolation, but as part of an 'interrelated world culture'. On each floor is an orientation gallery which introduces the floor using a touch-screen and provides the visitor with some possible routes of exploration. Theoretically, the idea is a fantastic one. I always loved the concept, but I remained worried about how successfully it would translate into practice.

Essentially the structure of the museum works thus: the floor below ground is called 'Crossing Cultures' and it provides dedicated galleries to some of the thematic concepts which will appear throughout the rest of the building, such as Money, Reading and Writing, and Human Image. While the galleries in themselves are nicely done, I fear that placing them below ground has prevented them from having the orientational impact that perhaps they should. Visitors enter on the ground floor, which is dedicated to the Ancient World, and the idea is that every floor above travels chronologically a little nearer to the present day. Visitors make take the route floor by floor, or they may choose to follow particular concepts throughout the museum, some of which are provided with “Connect” markers. Unfortunately, these were not always obvious. I do not think that every visitor will understand or experience the full complexity of the design strategy, but perhaps this isn't a problem. The galleries can still be enjoyed as independent entities within their own right and the “CCCT” concept does not dogmatically inflict itself upon the visitor. It is merely there to add a further level of possible exploration. Sometimes, it's rationale was unclear – I did not, for example, understand why the Music and Tapestry Gallery was situated on the 'West Meets East' floor, when every other gallery on those upper floors was named geographically, rather than in the more thematic 'Crossing Cultures' section. Nonetheless, I thought it was an intelligent idea and it is nice to see a museum giving credence to its audience and presenting them with accessible but non-patronising information in the guides and text panels, allowing them options to find their own path, rather than spoon feeding them information easily.

Overall impressions then? Good, by and large. The Ashmolean has presented an accessible, intelligent and well constructed building. Yes, they've made mistakes (the display of the Alfred Jewel is a serious one in my opinion, loosing a precious and important treasure in a case far too large for purpose). Yes, there are problems, but then again, there always are. I know how much work went into this project, I've seen the angst and, on many occasions, experienced such stress myself. But I like to think it's been worthwhile. The general buzz was positive.

Go and see it, if you get the chance. If you have seen it, give me your opinion, please. And if you want to see a more objective report about the redisplay, watch The Culture Show on Thursday night, 7pm, BBC2.


Amy said…
Thanks for this review Jenny!

It's made me particularly think about the 'staging' of exhibitions - display as performance.

We should organise a PhD community trip. :)
Anonymous said…
I'm going to visit the Ashmolean this weekend, I would have gone on Saturday but I can't stand crowds.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this review.

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