The Ashmolean, the University of Oxford’s Museum of Art and Archaeology and its 330th birthday in 2013

3 June 1863, 330 years ago, the Ashmolean, the University of Oxford’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, opened its doors to the public, as the world’s first university museum and one of the first public museums in general.
“During the past seven years I have paid special attention to this Ashmolean collection, and have had unusual opportunities of adding specimens procured in the Near East either by myself or by agents. It is now about twice as large as I found it in 1909 (T.E. Lawrence)

 Elias Ashmole by John Riley (ca 1683) 

Originally located in Broad Street, Oxford, using the “Old Ashmolean Building” attributed to Christopher Wren, that today houses Museum of the History of Science, the Ashmolean began its career as one of the finest museums of its kind as a cabinet of curiosities founded by the freemason and alchemist Elias Ashmole to exhibit his collection and that of the gardeners and explorers John Tradescants (elder and Younger) of books, prints, coins and the Tradescant’s “Ark”, a collection of rare and strange natural objects, including a stuffed Dodo that unfortunately deteriorated at end of the 18th century.

Elias Ashmole, dabbling in alchemy (19th century illustration)

The Ashmolean lost its charm of a curio collection for country bumpkins to gape at Cromwell’s death mask, a lantern used during the Gunpowder Plot or the robe of the King of Virginia (a Powhatan ceremonial cloak) during the early 19th century and finally moved to its current location in Beaumont Street in 1894. Today, the Ashmolean is a forum for one of the finest archaeology and art collections in the world.

The Ashmolean’s main entrance

Besides drawings and paintings by Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Turner and the pre-Raphaelites, Egyptian, Minoan, Near and Middle Eastern as well as some Anglo-Saxon archaeological  artefacts like the Alfred Jewel and the Abingdon Sword are exhibited, as well as curiosities like the Arab ceremonial dress owned by the Ashmolean’s benefactor and Oxford fellow T.E. Lawrence (the museum is the major copyright holder of his works and his estate) and a large collection of 17th century Posie rings that might have inspired another Oxford fellow, J.R.R. Tolkien, to write a story centred around rings.

More on: