Oxford in ten objects

The refrain ‘I don’t have time for museums’ is common amongst Oxford students, and certainly one I have used myself. The enormous number of things to do here tends to push museum visits pretty low down on the list, and anyway, it’s easy to forget about the cultural attractions of somewhere you live and experience daily. However, a new initiative spanning several of the museums here might be the right incentive to start exploring them.

In collaboration with museums across the county, BBC Oxford has created a list of ten objects which tell part of Oxfordshire’s history and suggest its relationship to the wider world. The objects are on display at the relevant museums, all of which are within walking or cycling distance except for the Oxfordshire Museum at Woodstock, which is a bus ride away. The objects form part of a wider project called ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ – a unique joint venture between the BBC, the British Museum and 350 museums and institutions across the UK, selecting objects of international provenance to create a multimedia impression of the development of global culture.

The strength of this initiative is that it appeals to an audience that otherwise might not visit museums much. The objects are all in permanent collections, rather than special exhibitions, so they’re not going to be whisked away any time soon, and visiting them is completely free.

Most of the objects aren’t the obvious treasures of their respective collections, so you’re likely to discover something you haven’t seen before, even if you are a frequent museum-goer. Millais’s 1851 painting The Return of the Dove to the Ark is one such example: it’s relatively unknown now, but it incorporates a stark tonal contrast, atypical in Pre-Raphaelite works, between the sombre background and the brilliant white drapery of one of the figures. It was also the first painting of this movement to be seen by William Morris, and seems to have profoundly influenced his later career in textile design and other decorative arts. If you walked into the Ashmolean’s nineteenth century rooms looking for a famous Millais painting, you would probably miss this one – yet on a closer look, it’s a beautifully simple composition rendered with immense technical skill, especially given the difficult textures included like straw, cloth and feathers.

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Similarly hidden away in a basement room of the Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street is a model of the structure of penicillin. The leading contributor in the research of X-ray crystallography used to work out the structure was Oxford scientist Dorothy Hodgkin, awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964. The model isn’t much to look at for the uninitiated, but it’s another reminder of the astounding achievements of centuries of Oxford academia. Also, it’s surrounded by an array of the Museum’s elegant, slightly-rusted oddities that make the room look like a Tim Burton science experiment.
Oxford in Ten Objects’s emphasis seems to be on the relevance of these objects to the modern day, which makes a change from the idea that visiting museums must be undertaken as a sort of cultural medicine. Dr John Hobart of Oxford University Museums described the project as ‘a fantastic opportunity for the museums and the people of Oxfordshire to focus on local objects and show how our county has contributed in many and diverse ways to the wider world’.

As such, the fact that the Pitt Rivers’s listed object is a tiny, unpainted, wooden ‘whit horn’, in a cabinet full of exotic painted flutes, needn’t seem a strange choice. Made in the 1890s, it was a musical instrument used to call Oxfordshire villagers to a hunt to kill a stag on Whit-Monday. Seamus Boyd, BBC Project Manager for the Nations and English Regions, said ‘some of [the objects] may have great monetary value, others little or none, but they’re priceless in how they bring to life moments in history.’

On the other hand, the validity of defining one object as ‘bringing to life a moment in history’ and discounting thousands of others is questionable. Why should one painting, sculpture, or antique plate be preserved and placed behind glass, and another left to moulder away? You could even argue that there is no longer a place for the institutional preservation of works of art, in a world where things such as giant comic strip paintings and a piles of dust can be valued at millions of pounds and put on display to the public. The French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp once said in an interview that he hadn’t been to the Louvre for over twenty years, ‘because I have these doubts about the value of the judgements which decided that these pictures should be presented to the Louvre, instead of others which weren’t even considered, and which might have been there’.

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However, the crucial difference of this project compared to previous attempts to pinpoint specific cultural monuments in history (Kenneth Clark’s huge series Civilizations springs to mind) is its interaction with the museum-goers themselves. Anyone can suggest an object with local or global appeal to the ‘History of the World’ website, and the organizers hope that each BBC Local website will have a second list of the People’s 10 Objects by the end of February.

Some of the objects on the original list are hard to track down – I couldn’t find the ‘Domitianus Coin from the Chalgrove Hoard’, and nor could the Ashmolean staff – but this doesn’t really matter. If you’ve gone into a museum and search its display cases intrepidly, you’re bound to discover new things anyway. Dr Hobart agrees, saying the ten objects are ‘only a starting point for discussion’. Organizers seem more concerned in promoting Oxford’s museum collections generally than in enshrining the ten objects as cultural artefacts. Whether or not you use the list, published in full on the BBC’s website, Oxford in Ten Objects is a reminder of the wealth of history available to explore here, and is as good a reason as any to visit one of Oxford’s excellent museums.