The World's Oldest Public Museum
Founded in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum in the oldest public museum in the world. It is named after its founder, Elias Ashmole, but the collection that he gave to the University of Oxford in 1677 had been largely assembled by John Tradescant the Elder and his son, John Tradescant the Younger. They were both eminent gardeners, who had created a museum for their collection at their house in Lambeth, south London. ‘Tradescants’ Ark’, as the museum came to be known owing to its comprehensive character, was open to visitors, irrespective of age, gender or status, on payment of a sixpence admission fee. However, it was also a scholarly museum, covering a wide range of artefacts, both man-made and natural, which the Tradescants had collected on their travels in search of plants, or from ship captains who collected on their behalf. A catalogue of the collection, Musaum Tradescantianum, compiled by John Tradescant the Younger and Elias Ashmole, was published in 1656. This was the first museum catalogue to be published in England.
The museum originally included stuffed animals, exotic birds, shells, fossils, ‘a piece of wood from the cross of Christ’, boots and shoes from Turkey, and much else, most of which has long ago disintegrated or been discarded. Much, however, still survives, including the famous ‘mantle’ of deerskins from Virginia that is said to have belonged to Powhatan (pictured below left), father of Pocahontas, as well as a Canadian shirt of caribou skin, Brazilian clubs, boots from China, a counting frame from Russia, a statue of Buddha and many other artefacts that, at one time, represented the ‘artificial’ world in the Tradescants’ museum. Another treasure in the collection is the lantern that was taken from Guy Fawkes when he was arrested under Houses of Parliament during the failed ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of 1605 (pictured below right). Had he been successful, it is highly likely that he would have used this lamp to ignite the fuse.
The Museum remained in its original building before moving to the University Picture Galleries (pictured top, built in 1845) in 1908. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been marked by continuing acquisitions of major importance in all the departments of the museum. The ever-growing problem of space was finally tackled with a radical scheme of demolition and rebuilding between 2006 and 2009, which swept away outdated extensions and erected a new building on the site. The redevelopment of the museum offered staff an opportunity to reconsider how best to present the Ashmolean’s diverse collections to the public and a strategy for the redisplay of ‘Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time’ was conceived as a theme for the new museum.
The radical new design utilises a sense of space and light that has transformed the appearance of the Ashmolean’s collections, creating thirty-nine new galleries, as well as conservation studios, storage facilities, study rooms and an education centre, all officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2009.
The Ashmolean is delighted to be taking part in Museum Shop Sunday, and will be planning events in both shops this November, to celebrate and coincide with our founder Elias Ashmole’s 400th birthday. We shall be presenting a wide variety of Christmas products which will suit all taste and pockets. There will be new additions to our unique range of Christmas cards inspired by The Ashmolean’s diverse collections, as well as gifts for all, ranging from stocking fillers to bespoke handbags and luxury fashion items. You can shop our product range at www.ashmolean.org/shop.