Cultures successfully crossed at Oxford’s Ashmolean
Rick Mather’s reinvention of Oxford’s Ashmolean has written a dynamic new chapter in the history of museums
It should be said at once that the new Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is architecture of a high order. Its central achievement has been to accommodate an ambitious intellectual and technical programme within an alarming set of constraints. This is a triumph of collaboration, and the full credit must be shared somehow between Rick Mather Architects, exhibition designer Metaphor and the museum staff themselves.
The principal funders of the project, the University of Oxford, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the Linbury Trust, must at times have been concerned about the scale of the undertaking. But when the last of their £61 million has been spent, they can justifiably claim they have made possible what is perhaps the first fundamental rethinking of any museum, as a public institution, in the long history of museums.
Before anybody stops reading, in astonishment or relief, it must be added that this powerful sense of fitness for purpose can be largely appreciated without dep- loying any of the normal terms of architectural criticism.
Indeed, beside the legibility of the spatial masterplan, all the bold engineering solutions, the qualities of finish or detail, and the odd moments of expressive design, are minor players and, rather too often, distracting ones. The “cascading” staircase in the main atrium is a case in point. Much is being made of it in the official photography, but it seems to me to have wandered in from some Baroque opera, perhaps with a nod to the Seattle Library and to Alvaro Siza. It creates anomalous spaces behind it that are truly at odds with the lovely clarity of the rest of the public galleries.
It is as though the overarching idea was sometimes just too big to be kept in focus by the teams of designers — they resolved their differences by giving one or another professional discipline its own head.
The Ashmolean sometimes lays claim to being the oldest museum in the world; it is without question the oldest in Britain, founded by the gift of the collections of Elias Ashmole to the University of Oxford. This was in 1677, 150 years before the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, and it allowed the Ashmolean to accumulate, by formal acquisition or gift, an astonishingly broad range of artefacts.
Much of the material came in the form of complete collections, diverse in their subject matter and often encyclopaedic. Important antiquarian objects arrived as often as great works of art.
Above all, the museum became the repository for objects found abroad by archaeologists working for the university, most memorably by Sir Arthur Evans, director of the museum from 1884, whose excavations at Knossos form the greatest holdings of Minoan art outside Crete. At this high point the museum was sometimes acquiring 2,000 artefacts a year.
The strength of such collections was that they were formed by clever individuals who knew exactly what their objects were; the weakness, if such it was then, was that the Ashmolean was understood as a convenient place of deposit, removed from, and even hostile to, public attention.
As the collections grew and were reorganised, tensions emer- ged between the departments over status and storage space. Keepers, appointed for their scholarship by their academic departments, were oblivious to the great populist visions by which the great 19th century museums had been founded in other cities.
Astonishingly, and for the present project even miraculously, the Ashmolean survived with this culture broadly unchanged until the beginning of the 21st century, and even without major alterations to its 19th century buildings.
The Cockerell building was itself robustly intransigent, alike in its monumentality, its plan and in its occupation of the constricted site. Conceived by a frugal university in the early 1840s, it was to be used by different departments; the more distinguished elevation, facing St Giles, was immovably established as the home of the Taylorian Institute.
Evans had added a set of single storey, system-built sheds in the yard behind the neo-classical building, pushing the footprint of the museum almost to the edge of its site. The south end of the city block between St Giles and Beaumont Street must be among the most intensively used of any urban fabric in which the occasional rebuilding has continued to respect Georgian building scale.
Here, then, was the problem facing director of the museum Christopher Brown. Much of the fabric was at the end of its life (the roof of one of Evans’s sheds had blown in), its archaeological and oriental collections were insecurely and inadequately displayed, and there was almost no provision of the ancillary spaces required for modern management.
English Heritage had made the reasonable, simple, stipulation that no part of the new building should be visible behind the palace facade of the old one. This was, then, an institution turned largely, and traditionally, in on itself with a grade I-listed facade as its only public face, and a development site that allowed no expansion either upwards or outwards.
The strength of the collections, and a certain history of their neglect, seem to have created an unexpected impulse to use the new building, which could have no public face of its own, as the occasion to re-examine the Ashmolean and museum practice in general.
The other way of putting this was that the museum, so long sheltered from the pressures of delivering anything much to the public, had become an embarrassment to the university; and it was clear that funding of any scale was only available if an ever-lengthening list of access and educational objectives could be met.
On either of these accounts, the museum grasped the problem boldly; if it had to reinvent itself it would do so with the style and intelligence appropriate to its holdings and history.
It was clear at this point that the Ashmolean had other advantages. Its relative size, certainly — at least compared with the British Museum and V&A, the two other great institutions with internal cultures telling the stories of international cultures. Also, its collections, which were not so much uneven as extraordinarily concentrated in specific areas, and could reveal, partly for this reason, much about the history of collecting and displaying them.
The 2002 schematic for the new building, before the appointment of the design teams, showed a conventional arrangement: curatorial frontiers simplified and enforced in a uniform floor-by-floor display, the earliest at the bottom.
This was not a promising beginning for a museum bent on its own reinvention, and the Lottery Fund sent it back with the schoolmasterly instruction that more work was needed.
History has since apparently shrouded the precise origin of the mantra the museum then gave to its new display strategy, and which secured its grant on a resubmitted application. Perhaps it seemed Crossing Cultures Crossing Time had an air of liberal well-meaning that would tick boxes on the forms of the professional assessors and in government departments, and a vagueness that would not scare entrenched curators.
However, the governance of the museum was reorganised to include trustees from outside the university, and it became clear that the Lottery Fund expected the museum to honour its promise.
At the very least, curators who had seen their main task as safeguarding the security and condition of their objects would now be expected to place some of them in galleries no longer under their primary control. The idea that the spaces of a museum were fluid and designed around the experience and movement of the visitor had by now broad currency in the museum world, and the Ashmolean doubtless learned much by coming so late to the game.
At issue for the museums were not simply the shifting definitions of curatorship itself, but that an object, displayed with other objects made at more or less the same time and place, might have more resonance for the visitor if shown, say, in the context of others produced, with the same techniques and at the same time, but thousands of miles away and for a different purpose.
The diagram of the new building is elegant in its logic, and it does not need to be fully understood before it is appreciated.
A pair of axes run from the back of the original building to the limit of the site; both are broken by staircases with strong natural light, falling the full six stories. Each aligns without any change of level: the first on the main door of the Cockerell building beyond (and the footprint of his apsidal tribune behind it); the second on the shop and side entrance in the lower floor of the original west range.
Towards the back of the new building, a cross axis that doubles Cockerell’s great sculpture gallery at the front connects the first two.
The whole space of the museum, old and new, is thus held firmly by a rigid rectangle. At the upper levels, the rectangle is replicated by allowing the two floors of galleries above the axes all to have six metre ceilings; the remaining volumes, in the centre of the rectangle and around its sides, are filled with single-height galleries. In order to minimise the depth of the floor plates, all major service runs are installed in the walls, which have grown correspondingly thicker.
This is the point at which the rich possibilities of such an intricate organisation become apparent, and it is a true revelation. At all the levels the contrasting scales of the galleries keep the drama of movement alive, and easily accommodate the contrasting scales, from coins to tapestries, of the objects themselves.
The visitor experiences movement up the building as a loose and rather gentle spiral, reorientated each time on their return to the atriums.
Better still, the “thick” walls have allowed the insertion of transverse cases that both allow objects to be seen in the round, often from galleries of different themes, but also as windows in enfilade between a series of rooms, and sometimes above or below.
These effects combine with startling oblique views, both vertical and horizontal, from the generous stair wells deep into galleries. Together these vistas do indeed combine to create some inspired juxtapositions of objects or cultures. But they also give glimpses of the Ashmolean collections, seen as a whole in all their episodic grandure.
The real achievement here is in drawing such large flexibility out of an instrument of refined complexity. The gallery design is a kind of ego-light modernism; a beautifully arranged stack of fairly neutral white boxes that could, in the end, be painted any colour, and could be made to play just as well to any intellectual programme, yet to be devised by younger generations of curators.
In the meantime, the architects have efficiently packed the periphery of the building with the ephemeral programme that the museum so urgently needed — a fine set of temporary exhibition spaces, a restaurant and conservation studios on the roof; and a compact office and education tower to the east.
These facilities share their own new entrance on St Giles, which thus acquires a wonderful pattern of diurnal use — staff and schoolchildren through the day, restaurant and special exhibition visitors in the evening. Such uses can evolve discretely in future, and without impinging on the connection, newly formed elsewhere in the museum, between the visitor and the works of art.
Crossing Cultures Crossing Time is already sounding slightly faint. It may never have been more than the rallying cry needed to secure funding, and to prise open the curatorial can; for the moment, it works fine as one story around which the new displays can be organised.
Whatever it once represented, the greatest achievement of this project is that it won’t be needed again by the Ashmolean, which is free to go on its way as still possibly the oldest, but also now the youngest, museum in the world.
Architect Rick Mather Architects, Structural engineer Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners, Exhibition designer Metaphor, Mechanical design Atelier Ten, Project manager Mace, Construction BAM, Financial consultant Gardiner & Theobald, Specialist lighting consultant Luxam, Gallery lighting Kevan Shaw, Exhibition cost consultant Greenway Associates