The latest press release from the Ashmolean says it all:
On Tuesday, 21 September 2010, at 4.23pm, Mrs. Diane Thomas, a primary school teacher from Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, became the 1 millionth visitor to the Ashmolean Museum since it reopened to the public on 7 November 2009.
How many one-year-olds can claim to have seen a million inquisitive faces? With a high-octane exhibition of nineteenth-century art – yes, I did just describe it as high-octane – and the reopening of a gallery stacked with replicas of the world’s most glamorous classical sculptures, the Ashmolean has never been in ruder health.
But stay a moment. Who remembers the old Ashmolean? I’m not sure that I do.
In November 2008 BBC disclosed that the UK’s oldest public museum was going to close for a year – and so it did – but I certainly recall there being a fair amount of banging, clattering and general tinkering going on for over a year before that too. Whether it was the eye-sore of scaffolding scarring the east face or Chris Howgego, the University Lecturer in Numismatics, complaining about how his favourite fifth century tetradrachm was somewhere lost in storage, the old Ashmolean has always seemed on its way out and the brand spanking 61m-pounds-worth of new Ashmolean been a thing-in-the-making for the duration of my Oxford career.
It was pretty small, eccentrically themed and perhaps had too much more in common with the Pitt Rivers than, say, the British Museum to really live up to its impressive facade. As perhaps befits John Tradescant’s original bequest, I remember the Ashmolean chiefly as a cabinet of curiosities: Guy Fawkes’ lantern, Powhatan’s mantle (that’s Pocahontas’ dad, by the way) and at least two rooms devoted to Walter Sickert’s paintings – a man rather tenuously thought to have been Jack the Ripper when someone had stopped suggesting Lewis Carroll.
This rather quirky side to the museum hasn’t been renovated away. In fact, if anything, it has expanded to include such curios as the robes worn by T.E.Lawrence, Henry VII’s golden burial pall, the ‘Messiah’ Stradivarius that, contractually, no one is ever allowed to play, and a hitherto hidden 5,000-item textile collection.
What has happened, rather, is the creation of a continuum between previously disparate pockets of interest.
Previously the Ashmolean’s idea of labelling left something to be desired. Now the displays have, if anything, gone to the other extreme. There’s no chance of escape without being brashly, colourfully and repeatedly told something. If you don’t like your global cross-culturalism hammered home in colour-coded format, you might find the new approach a little bit intrusive. But if, like me, you don’t have much knowledge of either Regency busts or third century Gandharan iconography, it certainly beats the slightly bemused Grand Tour offered by its predecessor.
Items are arranged o tell a story that weaves between rooms: clear, informative and memorable. Departments, previously isolated, have clearly exchanged notes and things that once seemed remote from one another suddenly belong in the same cabinet.
This love of connection is reflected in the building’s redesign. The new open-plan layout has doubled the exhibition space: six floors contain 39 additional galleries, with four for temporary exhibitions. It is immense and potentially labyrinthine but somehow, as you set off, it seems to all make complete sense: the great central stairway, the mezzanines linked by suspended glass walkways and the intermittent partitions all make progression between the exhibitions seem effortless and obvious.
Bridges woven from perspex and concrete that looks more like cirrus cloud than any building material link epochs, continents and galleries whose only furniture is the light.
You can catch flashes of what’s what through the spaces and follow your fancy. It’s almost an objet d’art on its own, not forgetting the view from the gorgeous (if pricey) rooftop restaurant.
Maybe the most impressive feature of Mather’s design is that, if you hadn’t noticed the last three-and-a-bit years’ worth of fuss and the £61m hole in the University’s bank account, you’d never even know it was there until you went inside.
And now the curators have added a cast gallery that unfolds like a Who’s Who of Classical art. Rome and Olympia are brought to Oxford with life-size reproductions of The Death of Laocoon and Mylon’s taut Discus-Thrower. Just around the corner you will find an anonymous marble of an old and sagging fisherman standing impudently beside a Roman general.
So maybe I don’t really remember the old Ashmolean, but what’s important is that I was thoroughly impressed by the new one. And I even found that tetradrachm.