The Ashmolean Museum
The engraving depicts the exterior of the “Old Ashmolean” building at the University of Oxford. We see it at a slight distance, with a good view of the street on which it is stationed. Three figures can be seen in the foreground. One is a scholar, dressed in cap and gown. The other two, a man and a woman, are dressed as gentility. The scholar points towards the entrance of the building. The blurred image of a tree is stationed at the right of the image (at the back of the museum). The whole image is dominated by the play of light and shadow, which corresponds to the partly cloudy sky.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Printing ContextThe Ashmolean Museum appeared as the frontispiece in A CATALOGUE of the ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM descriptive of the ZOOLOGICAL SPECIMENS, ANTIQUITIES, COINS, and MISCELLANEOUS CURIOSITIES, compiled by Philip Bury Duncan and published in 1836.
Associated PlacesThe Ashmolean Museum
The Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford is the oldest public museum in Britain (MacGregor 5). It was founded in 1683 by the gift of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), who bestowed upon the University both the already famous collection of natural and man-made curiosities known as Tradescant’s Ark, as well as his personal collections of coins, books, and manuscripts.
Renown for the collections amassed and curated by John Tradescant and his son (also named John) was widespread in the 1600’s:
The Tradescant collection, located at the Tradescant family home in South Lambeth, was a "must see" attraction for nearly half a century. In 1660 the headmaster of Rotherham Grammar School declared that London was "of all places . . . in England . . . best for the full improvement of children in their education, because of the variety of objects which daily present themselves to them, or may easily be seen once a year, by walking to Mr. John Tradescants . . . where rarities are kept." (Swann 28)While John Tradescant the Younger—who inherited the Ark from his father—also apparently intended that Oxford or Cambridge be the eventual home of the collections, it was Ashmole who arranged the transaction and the construction of a new building to house the museum (Swann 49). Although Ashmole did not attend the University of Oxford, he wrote of his regard for the institution in a 1683 letter to the Vice-Chancellor:
It has of a long time been my Desire to give you some testimony of my Duty and filial Respect, to my honoured mother the University of Oxford, and when Mr. Tradescants Collection of Rarities came to my hands, tho I was tempted to part with them for a very considerable sum of money . . . I firmly resolv’d to deposite them no where but with You. (qtd in MacGregor 16)Ashmole’s movement to secure a permanent display site for the collections shows a definite interest in establishing his own fame relative to the Tradescants and the Ark:
By 1675 Ashmole was negotiating with officials at the University of Oxford, specifying that if he were to donate the rarities to the University, they should be housed in a new, purpose-built "Large Rooem, which may haue Chiminies, to keep those things aired that will stand in need of it." In October 1677 Oxford agreed to house the objects to be donated by Ashmole in a new building dedicated to scientific research . . . Ashmole fiercely guarded the new identity he was crafting for himself as the owner and donor of the Tradescants’ collection. (Swann 48-9)While the Tradescant family portraits were hung “about the gallery walls as a permanent testimony to their achievement,” Ashmole, of course, was given the greater honor in the naming of the new museum (MacGregor 18).
Initially conceived as a scientific enterprise consisting of the museum as well as working laboratories and undergraduate classrooms, the museum originally displayed man-made and natural curiosities side-by-side. The museum was reorganized several times during the nineteenth century with a new conception of classification in mind. On November 2, 1870, John Henry Parker, the keeper of the Ashmolean, delivered a lecture to the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society praising the progress in classification that had been made over the century since the museum’s founding:
It [Tradescant’s Ark] was the earliest collection of the kind formed in England, and chiefly consisted of what are called curiosities, without regard to whether they were objects of Natural History—the works of God, or Antiquities—the works of Man, in the olden time. The collection, with the additions of Ashmole, included Birds, Beasts, and Fishes, especially the productions of distant countries, all that was comprised under the general name of "Rarities." Such was the general character of a Museum down to our own time . . . The University has wisely decided on separating this miscellaneous collection, and distributing it to the different departments to which each belongs. (Parker 4)By the end of the nineteenth century, many of the initial specimens donated by Ashmole had either been lost or transferred to the recently opened Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with the Ashmolean retaining mostly archaeological specimens.
SubjectThe engraving depicts the grand exterior of the “Old Ashmolean” building at the University of Oxford. The grandeur of the building is emphasized by the presence of three small figures, a scholar and a genteel couple, who stand before the entrance and provide a sense of scale.
ThemeClassification. Museum. Natural history.
SignificanceThe Ashmolean Museum was open to the community at large, though entrance was not free. In this regard it more closely resembled the private curiosity collections that preceded it, such as Tradescant’s Ark, rather than the British Museum, which as a public institution has never charged for admission. Because access—whether by invitation, admission by fee, or free and pubic admission—was such a central issue to the evolving role of the museum in society during the Romantic era, it is significant that this engraving depicts not only the imposing new building raised to house the Tresdescants' collections donated by Elias Ashmole, but also a moment of access. However, the dominance of the museum itself cannot be overlooked, primarily because its creator, the draughtsman Frederick Mackenzie, was known for his finely detailed architectural drawings. More significant is the fact that, though serving as a frontispiece to A Catalogue of the Ashmolean Museum (1836), this elegant engraving yet presents an image of museum-going in which the building matters just as much—if not more—than what it contains. This emphasis reflects Ashmole’s own insistence on having a newly built, specially designed building in place to house the collections before giving them to the University. While the prestige lent by the Tradescants’ famous collection would have drawn public interest, the University of Oxford was probably just as eager to display the building itself: "When it was finally completed in 1683, Oxford had spent more than £4,500 to erect the building, a sum of money 'which so exhausted the university finances that for some years afterwards the Bodelian Library was unable to buy books' "(Swann 50).
In keeping with its centrality to the image, the scale of the building renders the tiny figures who are about to enter into it almost insignificant: the scholar in academic garb appears to be welcoming the more fashionably dressed man and woman, who have come, presumably, to pay the entrance fee and view the contents of the museum, as well as to admire the latter's grand façade (for free). While the Ashmolean may have been open to “anyone, regardless of rank or gender, who could afford the entrance fee,” the man and woman in this image bear the trappings of the upper-class in their well-composed posture and dress (Swann 51). The lady’s arms are folded demurely in a muff; she wears a long, ornamented gown and bonnet. The gentleman—dressed in stockings, a waistcoat, and a top hat—is caught in rapt attention, following the scholar’s gestures towards the columns that surround the entrance to the Museum. Swann argues that the public practice of exhibition at the Ashmolean “subverted elite constructions of the collection as a marker of social distinction,” but there is nothing subversive about this visiting couple (Swann 51). Swann cites the 1710 observations of a German traveler named Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, who found the Museum plagued with unruly crowds:
When he first tried to enter the Ashmolean on a market day, it was so full of ‘country folk’ that von Uffenbach decided to postpone his visit; when he finally did view the collection, he was scandalized that "the people impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion and . . . even the women are allowed up here for sixpence; they run here and there, grabbing at everything and taking no rebuff from the Sub-Custos." (Swann 51)Rather than hoards of “country folk,” this image depicts three people who stand in stark contrast to Uffenbach’s opinion of “the usual English fashion.” They are every bit as grave and grand as the imposing façade that surrounds them, suggesting that the apparently egalitarian nature of this early public museum was still invested with—and potentially vexed by—a notion of propriety and rank.
BibliographyMacGregor, Arthur. The Ashmolean Museum: A Brief History of the Institution and its Collections. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2001. Print.
Parker, John Henry. The Ashmolean Museum: Its History, Present State, and Prospects. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1870. Print.
Swann, Marjorie. Curiosities and Texts. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2001. Print.
Long TitleA CATALOGUE of the ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM descriptive of the ZOOLOGICAL SPECIMENS, ANTIQUITIES, COINS, and MISCELLANEOUS CURIOSITIES. Oxford, Printed by S. Collingwood, MDCCCXXVI.
1 December 1834