Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review of the Ashmolean - Fr Andrew Davison

In the Church Times, Fr Andrew Davison reviews the newly refurbished Ashmolean Museum here in Oxford.

The University of Oxford’s Ash­molean Museum predates its own founding. The collection grew out of a “cabinet of curiosities” assembled in Lambeth earlier in the 17th century. Half a million accessions later, and the charm of the museum is still in the quirkiness of this hoard of objects.

As an example, take its late-medieval alabaster relief of the an­nunciation. For once, the dove of the Holy Spirit comes complete with his own slipstream. Out of the mouth of God the Father he flies, heading for Mary over the head of a timid Gabriel.

Surprises such as this are what makes the Ashmolean Museum — for all that it also contains works by some of the greatest names in art history. Mary turns up else­where dressed as a shepherdess or carved into a pilgrim’s keepsake scal­lop shell. The museum is full of such fascinating, appealing objects.

The Ashmolean opened to the public once more on 7 November, trans­formed by Rick Mather Archi­tects. The collection has outgrown its building once before. This time, the site was expanded, not relocated. The cost was £61 million and closure for a year. The benefit is a building that is equal in beauty to the art it houses.

Push through the columns of Cockerell’s neo-classical façade, and you come upon an atrium spanning five storeys of airy modernism. Along the right-hand side, a staircase as­cends from floor to floor, tracing enchanting curves as it does. At the summit are a rooftop restaurant and a terrace surrounded by Oxford neo-gothic.

Alongside all of this, the small part of the museum that has not been made over — the sculpture hall in particular — now looks old-fashioned in comparison.

The museum is now far too large to see in one visit. There is twice as much exhibition space as before. Different departments have seized on the luxury of new space in different ways. In Western art, the emphasis was on getting paintings out of storage and finding room to display new acquisitions. On the other hand, the department of antiquities had a different strategy. In the words of the curator, the aim there was to display “better rather than more”. The walls and cabinets are less densely packed than before, allowing the artefacts to breathe.

Just as important as the layout of objects is what we are told about them. The neat handwritten labels have gone. In their place come printed labels for each exhibit, and a large illustrated board to introduce the theme of each gallery. Visitors with any degree of specialist know­ledge will not find much that they did not know already. No matter: today they can pull up the online catalogue with their iPhones.

The new labels reveal the deplor­able state of religious knowledge in contemporary Britain. Every last an­nunciation needs an explanation. Even the crucifixion needs clarifica­tion. There is a story of a student on a tour of the National Gallery. It may be apocryphal, but it illustrates a point. “Why”, she protested after a few galleries filled with the Madonna and Child, “are these women always hold­ing a baby boy and never a girl? It’s discrimination and it stinks.”

Even the layout of the building now serves educational purposes. It re­sembles an archaeological dig: we ascend towards the present day through layers of history. More than before, the theme of each gallery serves to tell a story or make a point, but this is not over-laboured. The influence of one culture on another is a recurring theme, but, beyond that, galleries are still defined by time and location. The exceptions are on the lower ground floor. There we find a series of thematic galleries. They ex­plore sub­jects such as writing, money, and the depiction of the human image.

The Government is ever more insistent that universities must prove their benefit to the wider community. Not so long ago, academics had only to show that their research was ground-breaking. Today, they have to demonstrate ground-breaking re­search, and also that they present it from time to time to members of the Rotary Club or Women’s Institute. “Impact” it is called, and it is at the top of the agenda for funding bodies. Church groups will no doubt be welcomed into the Ashmolean with open arms.

Youth groups and confirmation classes should stream there in droves. More than ever, the Ashmolean holds untold possibilities for teaching. Christian objects, in particular, are everywhere. Alongside the supersonic dove already mentioned, and the shepherdess Virgin, there are plenty of other props for use in teaching visits.

The collection of ancient Christian gold-glass from the catacombs of Rome is unparalleled in the world. It was recently bought from Pusey House, although it has been on dis­play at the museum for some time. Or there is a medal issued by Henry VIII. On it he proclaims himself to be “of the Church, on earth and under Christ, the supreme head”. The front asserts this in Latin. On the back it is repeated in Greek and Hebrew, just to make the point.

The feel of the new museum as a whole invites comparison with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Although it is on a far smaller scale, there is the same juxtaposition of the ancient, medieval, and modern, and of painting and sculpture, tex­tiles, musical instruments, and ce-ramics.

Taking the objects and the archi­tecture together, the oldest public museum in the world is now without a doubt the greatest university mu­seum in the world. The collection is almost upstaged by the new building, and by that staircase in particular — almost, but not quite. In the end, the objects steal the show. They are by turns curious, beautiful, and infor­mative.

The museum continues to fulfil the wishes of Elias Ashmole, that is, to allow “the inspection of Particulars, especially those as are extraordinary in their Fabrick”.