This fall semester, I am studying abroad at the University of Oxford (St. John’s College) through the Princeton-Oxford Biochemistry Exchange Program. Most of my time has been spent researching in lab, but I have also found time to engage in college life and explore the city.
At Oxford, I have been fortunate to live in college housing close to both the University Science Area as well as the city centre and surrounding museums and libraries. I walk by the Natural History Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum every morning to lab. The Ashmolean Museum is across the street from St John’s.
Although I frequent London’s “Museum Quarter” in South Kensington almost on a weekly basis when I commute into the city for violin lessons at the Royal College of Music, I was most taken by the museums here in Oxford, especially coming from another academic institution with a deep art-collecting history, and wanted to explore what another university art museum was like.
The Ashmolean, founded in 1683, is the world’s oldest university museum. It stemmed out of the collections of Mr. Elias Ashmole, a wealthy English antiquary, which were then given to the University. The museum currently houses an incredible collection of art and archeology. I was impressed to see such a wide range of objects, like Egyptian mummies, musical instruments, large sculptures excavated from the Temple of Zeus, and parts of a shrine wall.
I had previously stepped into the Ashmolean for a chamber music concert held in the sculpture gallery. Coming again during the day time one weekend, I visited the Ashmolean while the Rembrandt exhibition was on; four of his five works in The Senses had been recovered. It was amazing to see such early works of his—he was only eighteen when he worked on this series, and each painting depicts such raw depth into the human condition.
A multi-story museum, the Ashmolean is set up so that visitors start in the past from the lower levels and move up the floors towards the present. The lower galleries— “Exploring the Past”—had exhibits on conservation (with a digital “conservation lab” area), money, and textiles.
The day that I went, there was a table set up to the side of the gallery, and two friendly museum staff asking “would you like to touch an ancient coin?” They had a set of about ten coins, all from different time periods and regions, with blurbs prepared for each. I was given a magnifying glass and encouraged to feel the weight and texture of the coins. In light of the recent opening night for the ancient coin exhibition prepared by some of our fellow SAB members at the PU Art Museum, I was quite excited to see that there was a similar interest on this side of the pond, and was especially inspired by the enthusiasm of the museum to put on interactive activities with visitors like this.
The middle floors continued into the “Ancient World” (including China, India, Greece, Ancient Egypt), and “Asian Crossroads”, such as Medieval Cyprus, and Eastern Art paintings. The next floor consisted of a broad range of works from AD 800, early Italian Renaissance, to the 18th century. A handful of prints from the “The Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” by Katsushika Hokusai were lined up against the walls in one of the galleries.
When I reached the top floor, which was a small mezzanine floor with modern art, Pissarro, Pre-Raphaelites, and 19th century art, I entered a very quiet atmosphere, away from the big gallery rooms and voices downstairs, surrounded only by the hush of paintings. It was a remarkable contrast to the buzz and excitement in the lower floors around ancient coins, jars from 1400 BC, and other archeological artifacts. I found this clever, saving the Impressionist and still life paintings for last, and encouraging, that there is always delight in objects other than the classic paintings one usually expects to see at a museum.
Overall, the Ashmolean is a wonderful museum and I hope to go back again. There is so much more to talk about regarding Oxford museums—the natural history museum has a most magnificent collection of dinosaur skeletons, their recent special exhibition showcased extremely high resolution photos of insects, and apparently each pillar in the museum is made of a different type of bone—but I will have to save that for another time. Both Princeton and Oxford universities have such a rich and vast object collection, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to explore and learn about the art here during my term abroad.