Oxford is a secretive place. The university’s colleges turn inward, clustering around courtyards, unlike rival Cambridge, where some of the colleges spread along one bank of the Cam River. Until the queen opened its new building this past December, Oxford’s biggest secret of all was the Ashmolean Museum. Though beloved by its few regular visitors, the Ashmolean had become a fusty dowager who kept many of her best treasures hidden away in packing cases.
The old girl hasn’t so much had a face-lift as a complete makeover—and not a minute too soon. The Ashmolean opened in 1683 as the world’s first public museum. It originated with a core group of natural history specimens that belonged to father-and-son gardeners, both named John Tradescant, who gave them to the antiquarian Elias Ashmole, who in turn presented the collection to the university in 1677.
London-based American architect Rick Mather won the competition to bring the Ashmolean into the 21st century. He removed makeshift additions, built in the late 19th century as temporary exhibition spaces, that were gloomy as well as searingly hot in summer and freezing in winter. By replacing these with an atrium crisscrossed by bridges that link the new galleries and fuse the six-floor extension to the handsome 1845 Neoclassical structure by Charles Cockerell, Mather has magically suffused the whole place with natural light. Architectural miracles like this don’t come cheap: the renovation cost $99 million. Mather restored Cockerell’s grand entrance, doubled the display space, and capped it with a rooftop restaurant and terrace that has already become a popular meeting place for town and gown. A couple of Oxford lads, Ben and Hugo Warner, operate the Ashmolean Dining Room; they’ve got a terrific contemporary English menu, a wine list from around the world, and sweeping views of the city.
Though you could spend a week looking at the Ashmolean’s remarkable collections, you can see its highlights comfortably in a day trip. Director Christopher Brown, who was responsible for the institution’s transformation, has unpacked the storage cases with his curators, uncovering such exciting objects as Lawrence of Arabia’s robes and the elaborately carved wood doors he brought back from Jidda. Elsewhere you’ll find the sole great Minoan trove in Britain, that of Arthur Evans, head of the Ashmolean from 1884 to 1908 and best known for his excavation of Knossos, in Crete, and discovery of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization. The contemporary-art galleries showcase a pair of paintings by British artist Howard Hodgkin, including a rare figurative picture, Tea Party in America, which was completed when he was 16; in the Moghul India room there is a selection of Rajput and Moghul miniatures collected by Hodgkin.
There’s the Rembrandt collection, comprising works by the painter and his followers; 17th- and 18th-century Japanese porcelains; extraordinary displays of Islamic manuscripts, glass, and Iznik tiles; the world’s largest group of Raphael drawings; Europe’s most important predynastic Egyptian artifacts; and the best selection of contemporary Chinese art in the West. Overall, the Ashmolean’s reorganized galleries connect objects across time and cultures. Eastern antiquities are linked with Western classical art by a fine set of Gandaharan sculptures—Buddhas wearing togas. The world and its cultures can be seen as a whole.
Director Brown, along with architect Mather, has succeeded in creating a luminous setting for collections which can at last be fully appreciated. His recent acquisitions include a couple of Titians, no less—plus Ben and Hugo’s restaurant. The man knows what he’s doing.
Paul Levy, a frequent T+L contributor, lives in Oxfordshire and writes on food and culture.