Banner picture showing PRM Court

Ovenell, R.F. 1986 'The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894' pp. 243-255 *

Ground floor of the [old] Ashmolean Museum in 1836Ground floor of the [old] Ashmolean Museum in 1836[p. 243-44] '... Greville Chester, his patience exhausted, fired a broadside at the University in a pamphlet which he published in May 1881, entitled Notes on the Present and Future of the Archaeological Collections belonging to the University of Oxford. His [p. 244] opening words were severe: 'Can nothing be done to protect, utilize, consolidate, and properly arrange the Archaeological Collections belonging to the University of Oxford? Not even the most bigoted admirers of the status quo can think that their present condition is creditable to Oxford as a Place of Learning, while all Archaeologists must regard it as simply disgraceful.' In this key he surveyed the existing scene, and listed desiderata.

[p. 244] ... The largest of the scattered collections was the Ashmolean Museum, but recently 'the ruling spirits' had started a rival collection of antiquities in the University Museum and already Anglo-Saxon objects as well as Cypriot jewelry were exhibited there. Part of the Arundel Marbles were in the Ashmolean, part in one of the Schools while the Pomfret Marbles were in disarray in the Taylor Building. (Here Chester referred to the University Galleries). It was still more extraordinary, he continued, that the Etruscan antiquities purchased from Signor Castellani were in the 'Taylor building', while a similar collection which Castellani had presented in 1871 was placed in the Ashmolean. There was a number of antiquities in the Bodleian, as well as a virtually inaccessible coin collection. Finally various colleges had collections. Queen's College for instance, had a considerable Egyptian collection, and New College a coin collection. To serve their proper purpose all these collections should be brought together for comparative study.

Had Chester written his Notes a year later he would have been able to cite the Pitt-Rivers Collection as a considerable threat of duplication in the field of archaeological studies in Oxford. After his general exposition he proceeded with a fierce criticism of conditions in the Ashmolean. Inferior objects, such as casts, were exhibited while originals were put away in drawers. Photographs of Roman sculpture obscured Egyptian pottery, and access to the main Egyptian exhibition case was obstructed by the Assistant's working desk, at which he could be observed polishing museum objects! The Tradescant pictures were nearly all stored away in the Clarendon Building attics. Illiterate labels were a disgrace to the University.

[p. 245] ... To illustrate the practical result, as he saw it, of this unsatisfactory state of affairs Chester recounted the story of the discovery of various Trandescant objects 'packed away in a box in an outhouse to which access by a ladder might easily have been had from the street', dismissing Rowell's explanation as to how they got there as preposterous.

It would be desirable, Chester considered, on the next vacancy to combine the office of Keeper with a chair in Archaeology, the holder to bear responsibility for all the University's archaeological collections. The Assistant Keeper should be an educated man, a member of the University, and possessed of taste and archaeological knowledge. Illiterate labels and polishing of exhibits might then cease. He added a list of desiderata under nine heads. (1) Immediate printing of a catalogue, to be sold in the Museum in parts of not more than a penny each. (2) More exhibition cases. (3) The restoration of the Upper Room. (4) The removal of 'Indian beasts' from the Basement. [1] (5) The recovery of the pictures from the Clarendon Building. (6) The combination of the few Egyptian antiquities in the University Museum with the many in the Ashmolean. (7) Objects not be withdrawn from cases to be handled by visitors (8) The combination of the Castellani collections in the Ashmolean. (9) The proper chronological arrangement of the ancient sculptures in the University Galleries, and their separation from the Chantrey casts.

... Rowell's angry response was published in a seven-page pamphlet published within three weeks, and Evans wrote a long letter in self-defence to the Oxford Times.

... [Charles] Fortnum decided to enter the lists. In a long letter to the 'Academy' of 10 December 1881 he gave his full support to Chester's criticisms and suggestions and added some of his own.

[p. 245-46] He was scornful of what he called the irrational severance of [p. 246] classical art and archaeology from other periods. There must be a continuous sequence from the first flint implement to the Parthenon frieze, on through Greece and Rome to the Renaissance, and up to the present day. The idea must be a 'New Ashmolean', in a new building, where the facilities for housing and studying these comprehensive collections could properly be provided.

He recognized that the ideal was a long-term aim, and that the Ashmolean Museum, with its Upper Room restored to it would serve during the interim. ...

There was sufficient underlying promise of potential future benefit in this letter to draw a reply from the University and answering on its behalf on 13 December H.F. Pelham acknowledged Fortnum's criticisms as valid. A new Professor, the Lincoln professor of Archaeology was to be appointed. A new Museum for the moment was not financially feasible, but it was the aim of the University eventually to provide one. Meanwhile, the Upper Room would be restored to the Museum. A committee had already been set up to consider the ultimate concentration of scattered collections ...

[the establishment of the Lincoln chair was finally constituted in 1884, the upper room was restored to the museum in January 1882]

[p. 246-47] During the summer of 1882 the Museum was cleaned and redecorated at the expense of the University Chest, and the pictures ... [p. 247] which had for twenty years been stored at the Clarendon Building were brought back, cleaned, and hung ... Edward Evans, who was now assuming more responsibility in administrative matters, and conducted most of the Museum's correspondence under his own signature ...

[p. 247] ... In his evidence given before the University of Oxford Commission in 1877 Jowett had advocated as an ultimate necessity the building of a new Museum of Archaeology. ... It is hardly surprising, classical scholar that he was, that Jowett's views were more narrowly focused on the needs of classical archaeology than on the comprehensive fields of development envisaged by [Arthur] Evans, but he was no enemy to University reform. Rather he was its leading champion.

At their meeting in March 1883 the Visitors received and approved a request from the Dutch government for the temporary loan of specimens from 'Captain Cook's South Sea objects' to be exhibited in the 'Exposition Internationale Coloniale et d'Exposition Générale' from 1 May to 31 October 1883 in Amsterdam. Twenty-six items were sent via the Dutch Embassy to Amsterdam where the Director of the Rijksmuseum included them in his catalogue of the Ethnographical Section of the Exhibition. ...

[p. 247-48] At the same meeting the Visitors received from Professor Moseley a [p. 248] request for the transfer to the University Museum of Savery's painting of the Dodo, and this they approved.

[p. 249] Before [Parker] died his friends and advisors, Chester and Fortnum, had laid down publicly the desirable lines of development in the field of art and archaeology. The Visitors in their meeting of 23 November 1883 had resolved, '1) That it is desirable to fit up the Upper Room in the Ashmolean Museum. 2) That the Curators are willing to cooperate in any redistribution of the Antiquities and Works of Art in Oxford which the University may deem expedient.' The University was about to appoint a Professor of Classical Archaeology, and the Hebdomadal Council had set up the appropriate committee to make recommendations for the better arrangement of its collections. A favourable tide was beginning to run.

[p. 250] ... With no established home of his own [Arthur] Evans decided to settle with his wife in Oxford when he returned to England, and when Parker's death at the end of January 1884 left the Museum Keepership vacant, he decided to apply for it, and was appointed on 17 June.

[p. 251] ... Arthur Evans spent a good deal of time during the summer of 1884 examining the condition and contents of his Museum. Unlike his predecessors the Duncans, Phillips and Parker, ... he looked  on the Musaeum Trandescantianum and Ashmole's original collection as a valuable trust to be carefully preserved. ... [he] identified what he could of the nucleus of the Museum collections ...

[p. 251-52] ... The University had now accepted the principle of unification of [p. 252] its archaeological collections in the Ashmolean, and the transfer of the Ashmolean ethnological collection to the University Museum. It was to Arthur Evans a retrograde step, since in his opinion no line between the fields of archaeology and anthropology could satisfactorily be drawn, but he accepted the practical necessity of such a measure. Since a distinction must be made, he proposed to draw it along historical and geographical lines. The archaeologists must have those records which illustrated the development of the great family of European nations, as well as the relics of the Mediterranean and Oriental lands that had contributed to Western civilization, while the relics of more remote and savage quarters of the globe should go to the anthropologists.

Evans set aside a show-case for the reunified Tradescant Collection, but by 1886 it required no less than three large cases on the ground floor. When selecting objects for transfer to the University Museum, the Keeper retained whatever was identifiable as part of the original collection, including the more remote ethnological objects.

As a preliminary to this selection, in 1884 the Underkeeper Edward Evans made a manuscript catalogue of the Ashmolean ethnological collections in two large folio volumes [AMS 25 'List of Anthropological Objects transferred from the Ashmolean to the Pitt Rivers Museum, 1886' (compiled in 1884)], compiled mostly from Rowell's manuscript catalogues, with additional contributions of his own. This catalogue, the most descriptive and informative of any so far produced on Ashmolean collections was retained in the Ashmolean, although the bulk of the objects it described was transferred to the University in 1886. [2] ...

On 20 November 1884 the Keeper delivered his inaugural lecture, in which he explained his plans to make the Ashmolean Museum an archaeological collection of European importance. These plans he had at the same time set out in a more detailed and practical form as a report to the Visitors which he printed under the title The Ashmolean Museum and the Archaeological Collections of the University, in which he listed the collections and many specific objects which he considered suitable for exchange with the University Museum, as well as those which he considered should be transferred from the Bodleian and the 'Taylor Gallery'. ...

[p. 253-54] Two days after his inaugural lecture, in order to publicize his [p. 254] scheme Evans held a Conversazione in the Museum in which he got together a display of antiquities covering a wide field, mostly lent by friends and colleagues, which greatly impressed the two hundred guests who were said to have attended. In the Keeper's study he exhibited an album containing photographs of selected bronzes, ceramics, and other treasures from the Fortnum Collection, to bring clearly to notice what the University might hope to acquire by the more manifestation of a proper desire to foster the study of art and archaeology.

[p. 255] While the financial matters were being settled, the Ashmolean ethnological collections were in process of being transferred to the newly instituted Pitt-Rivers [sic] Museum. The first small instalment had gone in February 1885, and more in September and November, but the greater proportion had moved between 9 February and 23 June 1886, and completed in September and December of that year. Afterthoughts accounted for a few transfers in April 1888. In addition to ethnological objects from the Tradescant Collection the Keeper retained many more which within the terms of his own principle of division the Pitt-Rivers Museum might justly have claimed. In return the Ashmolean received from the University those objects which were judged to be of greater archaeological than anthropological interest. It was a division which could never be entirely satisfactory.

On 11 November 1886 Bodley's Librarian, E.W.B. Nicholson, addressed a letter to Arthur Evans offering on behalf of his Curators to transfer to the Ashmolean some five hundred of the Bodleian's miscellaneous antiquities on condition that each object should be labelled as from the Bodleian, and that no object should be disposed of or transferred without the consent of the Bodleian Curators. The Curators had decided that no inscribed object should form part of the transfer. The offer and conditions were accepted, and on 3 January, the objects, including Guy Fawkes's lantern, were transferred. ...

At the Visitors' Meeting of December 1886 the Keeper was able to report the successful completion of the exchanges and transfers ...

[p. 264] With the successive transfers of the various collections to the University Museum and Pitt-Rivers Museum, the Institution in Broad Street established in 1683 by the University for the study of the natural sciences, for which purpose Ashmole had contributed the 'great variety of natural Concretes & Bodies' which he claimed to have 'amass'd together' had long since lost its scientific character. With this final move to Beaumont Street it ceased to exist, and the building only remained.

The relics of the original Ashmolean collection which went to he new Museum along with the Fortnum art collection and the archaeological collections which Arthur Evans was building up on the modest foundation laid by J.H. Parker were little more than a cabinet of 'Tradescant Rareties', forming a small but historically important enclave, a museum within a museum, much of its contents with but little relevance to the organized growth which surrounded it. It gave to the name of Tradescant that lasting memorial to which it was so rightly entitled.

If Ashmole's spirit walks in Oxford, he would certainly be pleased, but perhaps a little puzzled to find his portrait and part of his 'Praemia Honoraria' adorning a gracious 'Founder's Room' in a museum which bears his name, but which he did not found.

[1] these had been stored by Professor Monier Williams awaiting the building of the new Indian Institute.

[2] The two volumes are now held in the Pitt Rivers Museum, and nicknamed 'the vellum volumes'.

* [and codex from p. 264]

virtual collections logo

Supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund


(c) 2012 Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford