Oxford’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Ashmolean

February 9, 2017

What exactly is a cabinet of curiosities? During the Renaissance Europe had redeveloped a taste for classical arts from ancient Rome and Egypt; this love for antiquity was subsequently fueled by the massive amount of artifacts collective across the globe in the Age of Exploration. Some members of the ruling and merchant classes had amassed  encyclopedic collections which they had yet to be able to systemically labeled and categorized.

One of such was the 17th century wealthy collector Elias Ashmole’s, which included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens and zoological specimen. Donated to Oxford, his collection became the foundation of the world’s first university museum the Ashmolean. The current Classical-style building was designed by Charles Cockerell and completed in 1845; it was reopened in 2009 after a major renovation.

Think of the Ashmolean like a much tinier version of the British Museum with a few specializations in Egypt, the Mediterranean, China, Japan and England. It is truly astonishing the depth and scope Oxford has managed to, what’s the proper term here, “procure” from around the world over the centuries. Begin at the new Egypt and Nubia galleries, opened in 2011, which includes an entire temple of Amenemhat III and a statue of Sobek the crocodile god. Also worthwhile is the Mummy of Meresamun, a singer-priestess who was buried at Karnak some 2,800 years ago.

Between the massive Egyptian and Greek collections is a small room dedicated to Crete. Don’t rush through it — the collection on this Aegean island is Ashmolean’s crown jewel. When Crete succeeded in revolting against Ottoman rule in 1898, archaeologists from major powers rushed to the Aegean island, one of whom was the Ashmolean keeper Arthur Evans. Ashmolean was in a state of disarray; the former natural history museum was transitioning into an archaeological one. Having established a relationship with the High Commissioner Prince George during the early formation of the Cretan State, Evans had a monopoly on excavating Knossos on the north coast when digging began in 1900.

Based on ceramic evidence and stratigraphy, Evans reckoned Knossos was established much earlier than previously thought. He coined this ancient civilization Minoan after King Minos in Greek mythology. Most believed its downturn began around 1450 BC, possibly due to a major earthquake or the eruption of Thera volcano. Much is still unknown about this earliest of European civilizations, but what’s unquestionable is that the Palace of Knossos was reconstructed largely based on the imagination of Evans and his team.

Evans had brought a tremendous amount of artifacts back to the Ashmolean; in fact the museum now boasts the largest Cretan collection outside of the island. The most notable item is the Octopus jar, decorated with a six tentacled octopus, using purple red dye from murex shells.

There are plenty still to keep one occupied on the ground and first floors, such as Roman sculptures, Ming dynasty paintings and Tang dynasty camel earthenwares, but those short on time can go straight to the second floor where the theme is West meets East. I did spend a good twenty minutes at an exhibition on the first floor dedicated to the Japanese landscape painter Utagawa Hiroshige. The landscape genre, new in the early 19th century, gained widespread acceptance due to the work of Hiroshige’s contemporary Katsushika Hokusai. Greatly influenced by Hokusai, Hiroshige’s breakout series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō” included many elements from the former’s work. Hiroshige continued to produce prints of famous locations, the last series being a series in vertical format called ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”, a subject that was already covered by Hokusai. Although this series is much less acclaimed than Hokusai’s, Hiroshige displayed considerable depth in being able to depict the same subject in consistently different conditions and angles.

On the second floor, first take a quick look at Gallery 35 and the bastardized/romanticized portrayal of each other by Chinese and Europeans ceramics craftsmen. Move onward to the next room to find arguably the most celebrated piece in the museum — the Alfred Jewel. Crafted during the reign of Alfred the Great (871 – 899), it is believed to be handle for a pointer stick for following words when reading a book. While other similar objects are found, this is by far the largest and most elaborate.

After making quick work of the painting section, I chose to end my visit by getting completely overwhelmed at the European Ceramics Gallery, home to hundreds of ceramics ranging from Dutch plate to British cup from different eras. Despite my choice, painting enthusiasts can easily spend an additional hour on the paintings section, headlined by Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group.


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