A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.
This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up the existing galleries, ousted the shop from the former Ruskin Gallery, repositioned cabinets (rather counter-inuitively) into the walls – and gives visitors more floor space and circulation room, making the whole welcoming and airy and – as architect Rick Mather puts it – an exhibition without dead ends.
As someone who visits the Ashmolean regularly I confess, I used to skip past these galleries and so had no idea they were home to the Shrine of Taharqa – the only pharaonic building in Britain. A gift to the University of Oxford from the rulers of Sudan as thanks for the work done preserving the country’s decaying sites and treasures, it arrived in 1936 like something from an Indiana Jones film, in 150 packing cases. Since it had to be assembled on metres-deep foundations it couldn’t be moved during the renovations and the exhibition is centred around it. But I’d never noticed this sandstone edifice before. Stripping black paint off glass bricks in the vaulted ceiling above it has allowed what looks like natural daylight to flood through to highlight its shape and throw its carvings into relief. In fact, it’s a trick of the eye – fluorescent lights have been installed over the glass because the courtyard beyond will be the subject of revamp Phase Three.
Patrick Berning of Rick Mather Architects explained that choosing the lighting had been another key element of ensuring the galleries evoke the exhibits’ homelands in the Nile Valley – bathed in sunlight and dappled by moonlight.
Think Ancient Egypt and you can’t help but think mummies – and, possibly dry, dusty sarcophagi with ghoulish contents. I used to be scared by the exposed mummy in my home city’s museum at Norwich Castle and I was unimpressed as a small child when my school entered the Ancient Egypt frenzy and friends queued around the British Museum to see the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition (though I’ve never forgotten how to spell the name).
These are things that become etched into the memory, but as the Ashmolean’s Assistant Keeper Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Liam McNamara, emphasises with schoolboy-like zeal, far from being obsessed with death the ancient Egyptians wanted to celebrate life and much of what is on show does just that. Liam has the kind of earnest enthusiasm for his subject that causes journalists to throng around him as he explains each display case’s contents and he’s touchingly concerned that another of the key exhibits, the mummy of ‘Jed’ has been found to be missing his heart – vital for weighing in the balance on reckoning day.
Bringing these mummies back into the museum’s centre and treating them with the reverence they would have been afforded at death has been a labour of love by the museum’s world-renowned conservators. Using innovative and inventive methods, they have prepared both the familiar pieces and some that have never before been seen by the public. New cases featuring micro-climates within allow coffins, portraits and artefacts to be displayed in fascinating detail, while modern scans have helped unravel the stories of the people beneath the wraps.
Head of Conservation Mark Norman – who still can’t believe he and his staff were granted such a wonderful space to work in – the top-floor overlooking-the-city state-of-the-art north-facing studios housed in the newly built part of the Ashmolean – later explains the museum’s policy of respect and honour for any human remains in its possession. Taking us on a tour of those conservation studios (an oasis of calm now all the exhibits are back in position) he considers that the museum would never put an exposed body – for example a crouched burial – on show – and would be highly sensitive even to acquiring such a item for the museum’s collection.
The new galleries are an opportunity to exhibit world-renowned artefacts in a world-class place – but what’s on show still represents only 4 per cent of what the Ashmolean has, although Mark Norman is at pains to explain that much of what is behind the scenes would only be of interest to scholars and experts – shards and fragments – a bead, a tile, a shred of fabric, for example. Nevertheless, it’s such vast reserves that make the Ashmolean’s collections of early Egyptian material one of the most significant in the world outside Cairo.
That said, the museum as a whole is now Britain’s most visited outside London and Dr Brown (speaking candidly at lunch) said that if you think education should be free – and he does – ensuring that entry remains free is paramount to encouraging people’s knowledge. Wooed from the National Gallery, where he was Chief Curator, he is backed by a team of like-minded experts and visionaries – people like Project Director Henry Kim and Keeper of Antiquities Dr Susan Walker. Dr Brown thinks big and thinks the museum and the University, of which it is part, were lucky that the remodelling process started when financial confidence was high and funds could be secured. The current economic gloom may account for museum’s ongoing appeal – somewhere to visit on a wet Saturday rather than a trawl around the shops, perhaps.
Dr Brown always liked the way people popped into the National between train journeys or to see one or two things on their way to somewhere else and that’s something he’s been successful in translating into the cosmopolitan, but small, city of Oxford.
The Ashmolean’s newest galleries won’t appeal to everyone – there will always be naysayers who will dislike the smart-phone-like information guides and headsets and will gripe about the price of a coffee in the basement café (the top-floor dining room is invariably packed at lunchtime, so clearly no-one minds the prices there). But as my son – then aged 12 – remarked when the Ashmolean re-opened in 2009, entry is free and they do have to make their money somewhere. The profit from these ventures last year was £3 million and a large amount of that was creamed off and put back into running the museum, Dr Brown revealed while eating a sandwich. You can always take your own sarnies with you and sit on a bench somewhere quiet to save cash. Visiting the Ashmolean needn’t cost more than the price of a bus ticket – and that can’t be bad in these times of austerity.
Min statue (3300BC)
Carved silkstone figure 3600-3500BC
Clay lion (2686-2175BC)
Protective amulets (on loan from Queen’s College)
Painted wood portraits
Artist Angela Palmer’s re-creation of a young child on 111 glass slides
The Master Drawings exhibition 25th May-18th August 2013
For more information about the Ashmolean Museum and all its exhibits visit www.ashmolean.org or tel: 01865 278000.
Admission is free, donations are welcome.
*Please note images here have been used with the permission of The Ashmolean Museum Press Office & The University of Oxford.