The Ashmolean Transformed
On 7 November the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford unveils its new building. Designed by Rick Mather, its 39 galleries break down the curatorial boundaries in England’s oldest public museum, writes Philippa Glanville.
Philippa Glanville, Thursday, 1st January 1970
At first glance, a visitor to Oxford standing in Beaumont Street would struggle to discern the new Ashmolean, a fact that amuses its architect, Rick Mather. Although half the museum is now an entirely new building, and more than £60m has been spent, provided largely by the Linbury Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the extension has been ingeniously dropped within a space defined – and in effect concealed – by seven other contiguous structures.
Although the museum has its origins in the collection presented to the university by Elias Ashmole in 1677, in its present form it is largely a late-19th-century creation – indeed, its very name dates back only 100 years. Its use has evolved too; within living memory, drawing classes for students at the Ruskin School of Art were held in what is now the museum’s shop. The main building (Fig. 2), by C.R. Cockerell, was opened in 1845 as the home of the university’s art collections, including classical sculpture and casts. But archaeology was becoming a serious academic subject and in 1878, 132 senior members of the university signed a proposal for a new museum that would combine the university’s art and archaeological collections. In the late 19th century a memorable warren of shed-like galleries was added behind Cockerell’s building under the direction of Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos, and in 1908 the whole was renamed the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology.
After being closed for nearly a year, the Ashmolean reopens to the public this month to reveal that those late-19th-century galleries have vanished, to create the site of the new extension (Fig. 5). So there is a real surprise – and a lift of the heart – as one enters the Cockerell building to see the transformed interior that opens up beyond. Perhaps the best way to understand Mr Mather’s achievement, and to see quite how tight the site is, is to take the lift up to the most unexpected part of the extension, the roof-terrace restaurant (Fig. 4), to enjoy a vista of Oxford’s golden spires and gables. At night this will be a magical experience, impossible anywhere else in the city – indeed, it is a feature so novel that it triggered some resistance at the early planning stage. An engaging touch, typical of the thought evident throughout, is a neat lawn at roof level.
Although this awkward site offered such a challenge to the architect, engineers and contractors, it has been triumphantly exploited and turned into an asset in the 39 new galleries that the building provides. Small, slit windows allow glimpses out to brick walls, or a back alley (Fig. 6), subtly reassuring visitors that there is a daylit world nearby and also helping with orientation. A key element here, as he readily explains, is an experience in Mr Mather’s architectural formation half-a-century ago. As a young American in London, he enjoyed the tours of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London by its curator, Sir John Summerson. That is another idiosyncratic building, far larger inside than its exterior would suggest, and a 200-year-old exemplar of how to bring light down into a cramped city site.
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy