There are two directors in the Ashmolean when I arrive: Dr. Sturgis, the new man, took over on October 1st; but it is Professor Christopher Brown, art historian, who has occupied the post for sixteen extremely successful years who I am here to see.
Brown’s interest in the history of art began at school when, in 1964, he became fascinated with Goya after an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Despite this early interest, he ended up at St. Catherine’s, Oxford, studying History. “While I was doing my History degree here,” Brown recalls, “I attended classes given by a very remarkable Belgian scholar called Delaissé, Bob Delaissé, who was at All Souls and taught a post-graduate diploma in the History of Art. I was bewitched by him, and bewitched by the subject, which was early Netherlandish painting and manuscript illumination.”
After completing Delaissé’s year-long diploma, Brown was inspired to continue his studies, registering for an MPhil at the Courtauld Institute.
However, it was at this point, at the young age of 23, that he was offered a job at the National Gallery. “So I went there, and was very fortunate to get that job, as the Curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings, because frankly at that moment I didn’t know much about Dutch and Flemish paintings, except for the year that I’d done at Oxford. But in those days, appointments were made more on promise than achievement.”
Brown’s promise paid off, as he eventually became Chief Curator in 1989. Nine years later, he moved to the Ashmolean, which he describes as “the most important museum of art and archaeology outside London in the country”.
At an interview for the job, Brown made it clear what he thought was the key issue for the Ashmolean “Was the University willing and keen to open up the museum, show the collections to a much broader public than had been the case, and bring the museum into the 20th, if not the 21st, Century?”
This desire to democratize the museum as an institution has defined Brown’s career. “I’ve always had a deep belief in the public importance of museums,” he enthuses. “They are great public educational institutions. I think it’s interesting to compare for example how Florentines use the Uffizi or how Parisians use the Louvre — which are both charging museums, of course — and how Londoners use the National Gallery. I think the great joy of a free museum is that you can drop in for relatively short periods of time. Between trains at Charing Cross, you pop over to the National Gallery and look at Pierro della Francesca’s Baptism, which is of course one of the very greatest works of art in the entire world.
“I think that the way people used museums in 1971 and the way they use them today is entirely different. People now treat museum-visiting as a very important part of life and a very ordinary part of life. Going to a museum now is in a sense a very natural activity. It’s not something that you have to get dressed up for, and put in your diary months ahead. You think of going to museums as part of everyday life.”
Indeed, statistics show that more people now visit museums every year than go to football matches, and although one might think of a football crowd as far removed from the Ashmolean’s target audience, Brown stresses the importance of attracting people from all backgrounds. “We have made real efforts here to attract audiences who do not naturally go to exhibitions. We’ve gone to particular trouble to do that, with, I think, some success.”
So it seems as if the importance of the museum, especially in Britain, is growing rapidly. “I think that the key to it is that museums are essentially educational institutions. You find out about your own history, and about many different cultures. To understand other cultures by their artefacts is something which, surely, we must all, in our joined-up world, try to do.”
In sixteen years, the Ashmolean has gone from 200,000 visitors a year to a million, and Brown attributes this success primarily to the £61m worth of rebuilding that he oversaw shortly after taking the job.
“I remember when we topped out the building [in 2008], which was an extraordinary moment. It was pouring with rain, and when you top out, of course, you don’t have a roof, so it was quite a damp occasion. But it was very exciting. The Vice Chancellor performed the ceremony, but then I spoke to the assembled throng, and there was a real sense of excitement as the building went up.”
The Ashmolean in its current form is of course an iconic sight not only to Oxford students, but to countless others, and Professor Brown’s achievement in bringing it to its current level of popularity as the most-visited museum in the country outside London is truly staggering.