November 6, 2009 / 7:01 PM / in 8 years

Oxford's revamped Ashmolean can now "do drama"

OXFORD, England (Reuters Life!) - T.E. Lawrence’s Arab dress, an entire Japanese tea house and the best Aegean history collection outside Greece will be star exhibits when Britain’s oldest public museum re-opens on Saturday.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford will swing wide its doors after a multimillion pound renovation, which has seen the museum closed to the public for the last 10 months.

The refurbished Ashmolean comprises 39 new galleries, including four temporary exhibition galleries, a new education center and state-of-the art conservation studios.

The building, designed by award-winning Rick Mather Architects, not only doubled the Ashmolean’s display space, but also offered the opportunity to completely redesign the presentation of the museum’s artifacts.

“From the outset, our ambition has been to create not just an improved and expanded version of Britain’s oldest public museum, but something significantly different in kind: a new way of showcasing the Ashmolean’s remarkable collections, for the benefit of the widest possible audience,” Christopher Brown, Director of the Ashmolean told Reuters.

The Ashmolean has called its display strategy “Crossing Cultures Crossing Time,” and says it is based on the idea that the civilizations which shaped our modern societies developed as part of an interrelated world culture, rather than in isolation.

Thematic galleries connect activities and objects common to different cultures, such as money, reading and writing, and the representation of the human image.

Project Director Henry Kim said that strange things used to happen when navigating the old museum.

“You’d go through Egypt and end up in Worcester Porcelain, which was just absolutely absurd,” he said.

“Now we’ve gone back to this idea of studying objects cross-culturally, where you join cultures that actually have meaning next to each other; the Islamic world next to the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean next to India. You can take collections and make them talk to one another.”

The museum’s galleries are designed to facilitate this cross-cultural perspective. The use of both single- and double-height galleries and large glass showcases allows visitors to look through one gallery to another.

“Now the quality of the architecture finally matches the quality of the collections,” Kim said.

The Ashmolean was originally based on the idiosyncratic collection of natural history specimens collected by gardening pioneers John Tradescant (father and son), which were donated to the antiquarian Elias Ashmole in 1659 and given to the University of Oxford by Ashmole in 1677.

It officially opened in 1683. Some of its earliest artifacts are on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery, including a lantern used by Guy Fawkes who plotted to blow up England’s Parliament in 1605 and a hawking glove of Henry VIII‘s.

Today, the Ashmolean remains dedicated to making its collections available to the widest possible audience.

The renovation has seen the opening of a new education center to encourage children and young adults to explore and enjoy the collections.

The ‘Japan from 1850’ gallery houses a traditional Japanese tea house, reassembled in the gallery. It contains a selection of contemporary Japanese tea wares and will host regular demonstrations of the Japanese tea ceremony.

The museum’s design also helps to encourage interest in the provenance of the collections.

“The galleries focus on asking ‘How do we know what we know?’ and demonstrating the role of archaeologists in shaping the past,” said Ioannis Galanakis, curator of the Aegean gallery, the best collection of Aegean history outside Greece.

Its artifacts are color-coded to enable easy understanding of their cultural significance, and invite the visitor to form their own opinions of aesthetic value.

The showcasing of objects has been completely redesigned, with a much more visual approach; the focal point of Mediterranean gallery is a large illuminated map on the floor with various objects suspended above their point of origin, and the Islamic Art gallery displays projected images of major Islamic cities on its walls.

The increase in space and improvement of environmental controls has allowed the museum to highlight some of its most famous acquisitions.

Occupying a prominent position are the garments worn by Lawrence of Arabia to impress the Arab leaders he was trying to recruit in his campaign against the Turks during World War One.

These could not have been displayed prior to the redevelopment as they had to be kept in climate-controlled conditions. A striking pair of carved wooden doors brought back by Lawrence from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, too tall to be displayed in the museum before the renovation, now provide the focal point of the Islamic Middle East gallery.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that the Ashmolean of old was very uncomfortable with doing things dramatically,” said Kim. “Now we can do drama.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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