Rebuilding Tradescant’s Ark at Sea

I went to the Ashmolean Museum today. I was keen to see what the £61 million refurbishment had ended up looking like.

I have a soft spot for the Ashmolean since I had my very first undergraduate tutorials there. They were with the inspirational prehistorian Andrew Sherratt, in his dingy attic office with views across the Oxford roofscape. We had eight weeks to cover the whole of human history from human evolution to the silk route, by way of the origins of farming, cities and metal-working. This was an exhilarating ride – the task for my first week in Oxford was to produce a diagram showing the significant events in human history – all of it!

Tutorials were epic events at 2pm on a Friday afternoon, sometimes lasting upwards of three hours. I remember Andrew repeatedly boiling an old kettle next to his desk and making himself cups of black coffee. He never thought to offer a cup to the two first year undergraduates sitting across the desk from him. By 5pm, gasping with thirst, we would be turned onto the street by the museum security guards, locking up the galleries for the night.

That was in 1997, and in those days many of the galleries at the Ashmolean still featured arrays of countless objects with handwritten labels and explanatory panels. There were galleries of material from Egypt and the Near East, from the ancient Mediterranean, from India and China, as well as galleries of European fine art. They were all in the same building, but each space had a very different look and feel, reflecting the preoccupations of the different departments of the museum. To connect the dots, and think about how what was happening in China related to what you could see in the European galleries, or how the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia related to Minoan crete or Ancient Greece and Rome, you needed someone like Andrew.

As a pioneer of world-systems thinking in Archaeology, he was happy to move from one part of the world to another, following the trade routes. He would drag us between the galleries to compare different types of pottery. When talking about stone tools in one tutorial, Andrew decided that the best thing would be to get the feel of them and dragged us into the bowels of the museum where he made us hold a series of stone tools dug out of a dusty storage boxes. Today, some of this connecting up has been attempted by the new displays. The welcome text declares that the museum’s new ‘display approach – Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time….reveals how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture.’ Glass panels and balconies allow you to look from one gallery to another and make the imaginative leaps yourself.

The atrium that you arrive at from the main entrance encourages the visitor to make connections between the different areas of the Ancient World that are displayed on the ground floor: the Mediterranean, the Near East, China, Egypt and India. In the basement a series of new displays make connections through themed displays on money, reading and writing and the human image. The key gallery on the first floor is called ‘Asian Crossroads; while the second floor has one called ‘West meets East’. The third floor seems to be preserved for European art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is hard to escape the feeling that European modernism appears to have transcended the inter-regional influences of previous centuries (While in reality the influence of African and Pacific art on European modern art has been enormous). The third floor is also still largely empty, with some expansive (but unused) temporary exhibition spaces. Although the museum was formally opened by the Queen a month ago, it is still clearly a work in progress. Many cases were awaiting their labels and a number of positions in the cases remained unfilled. Like a venerable old ship, the Ashmolean continues to move, but attempts to impose a new display approach, like setting a new course from the bridge, isn’t going to happen quickly.

A lot has happened in museums since 1997, the year in which Tony Blair became the first Labour Prime Minister since 1979. By signing up to the New Labour social inclusion agenda, museums have been able to access pots of money for large capital building projects and new museum buildings have emerged all over the country. Pushing my son in his pushchair I was more than happy to find the new building dotted with lifts. However, I did have to work hard to find them and they are quite small, (we just squeezed in a pushchair, a wheelchair and two people standing at one point). Because of this, much of my afternoon seemed to be spent waiting at lift doors. These are the ubiquitous brushed metal, with plenty of mirrors inside which my one year old son could use to make faces at me.

The archaeologists of the future will surely marvel at the last decade as a boom period for museum building and renovation, inaugurated by the opening of the British Museum’s great court in 2000. It is of course paralleled by the contemporary and related trend of rebuilding those other great public buildings of our age: shopping centres. Both trends are perhaps symptoms of the consumer boon of the last decade. The stark modernist architecture in both cases features white surfaces with lots of chrome, stone and wood. The Ashmolean even has chrome baby changing stations. The only problem with shiny new buildings is that they make slightly less shiny, slightly less new buildings look much older than they actually are. They also show up dirt incredibly badly. With areas of the building still something of a building site, it wasn’t hard to find evidence of dirt and dust around the Ashmolean.

While the refurbishment of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre has been put off due to the economic downturn, the Ashmolean redevelopment has managed to slip through the net of the impending age of austerity. As the UK’s oldest public museum, founded in 1683, the Ashmolean has seen recessions before. It has seen new museum buildings and reorganisations that have led to transfers of the natural history and ethnographic material from the University’s collections to other museums in Oxford. One can’t help thinking that for those curators who manage to hang on to their jobs, the shift away from big building projects, which the next decade must surely bring, may be something of a relief. The main beneficiaries of the bundles of cash spent on museums in the last ten years have been designers and architects, who have expected curators to supply them with objects, ideas and text, which they then mould into a design that has to look modern and up to date. Most museums have the same number or fewer curators than they did in 1997, but like the NHS, museums have employed armies of managers to see that the curators keep up with their increased work loads. While the redisplayed Ashmolean, and its new ‘display approach’ appears to embrace so many of the ideas of Andrew Sherratt, it is hard to imagine him working there. Discovering and following connections and patterns between different parts of the world requires an enormous amount of research time, but also quite a bit of fortuitous discovery that results from apparently purposeless exploration and lateral thinking.

At the end of a long afternoon exploring the galleries, I decided to visit the Ashmolean’s new rooftop restaurant for a cup of coffee, while I fed my son his dinner. Having managed to find the one lift that actually went to the fourth floor, I arrived to find the waiting staff packing up for the day. They told me that the coffee machine wasn’t working, denying me, once again, the chance of having a coffee while looking out from the roof of the museum. Once again we rode the lift back down to the basement cafe. My son is just learning to walk and following an afternoon strapped into his pushchair he was keen to cruise around the cafe from chair to chair for a bit of exercise. For a brief moment he dropped to the floor crawling over to something that had caught his eye. He reached up to me, his tiny hand clasping what looked like one of the obsidian flaked tools Andrew Sherratt had made me hold in my own hands. What he had actually found was a piece of broken glass, and a trickle of blood slipped slowly from the thin slice it had made in his one-year old thumb.

What a reminder, if one were needed of the origins of human culture and technology along the cutting edge. While the Ashmolean museum presents a celebratory account of human borrowing and influence under its motto ‘Crossing Cultures Crossing Time’, arguably the Ashmolean museum is not really about cultures at all, but about civilisations. As Andrew Sherratt would no doubt have been pleased to point out, while large states with urban centres manage to produce some pretty impressive objects, they also have well armed military forces ready to impose their will, particularly when their trade routes are threatened. It is no surprise then that the Chinese navy are currently looking for a permanent base on the African coast to take on the Somalian pirates. While culture is a word used most often by those who are trying to escape the influence of their former imperial powers, civilization is one most often used by empires. The French Anthropologist, Marcel Mauss has declared that ‘Societies live by borrowing from each other, but they define themselves by the refusal of borrowing.’ It is the conflict, and the cutting edge that appear to have been left out of the Ashmolean’s vision of ‘how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture.’

In getting to grips with the redevelopment at the Ashmolean Museum, a better analogy than steering a ship, might be rebuilding the ship while at sea. You can replace a few sections at a time, but try to do much at once and you start to spring some serious leaks. I wasn’t at all convinced that the Ashmolean wouldn’t require quite a lot of bailing if it were a ship at sea. The different departments’ displays, while more integrated than they once were, still seemed to be pulling the museum in different directions. As I left the baby changing area at 5:45pm, having cleaned up my son’s cut thumb, I found that although the museum officially now closes at 6pm, I had been locked into the empty galleries. As I waited for a security guard with a key to come and let me out, I reflected that despite its shiny new building and ‘display approach’, it was clearly still the same Museum. I hope that one day soon, I’ll manage to have that coffee with a view from the roof.