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European museums of antiquities have a different feel from American ones. So numerous are the riches they possess that one finds the objects crowded together on the shelves, whereas Americans allot space to each precious item, the way high-priced goods are spaced apart in an upscale boutique. In the most traditional places, like the Capitoline museums in Rome, or the Ashmolean in Oxford, objects from different periods are casually juxtaposed. It is all quite different from the strict division by period and place which I normally expect in a museum.

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The façade of the Ashmolean. The current structure dates from the Victorian period (1840s). Photo: Oxford City Visitor’s Guide.

I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting the Ashmolean, “the world’s first university museum.” Though not as extensive as the British Museum or the Louvre (thank goodness), it had plenty to keep me occupied for an afternoon, and it possesses a uniquely English appeal, the aura of all those intrepid archaeologists, both male and female, who set out to study ancient civilizations.

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In a place of honor hangs this portrait of Arthur Evans (William Richmond, 1907). He excavated the Minoan palaces in Crete. I love his immaculate, yet slightly rumpled white suit, and the flower in his lapel. Photo: Wikimedia, by Zde.

The museum is not only a repository for objects, but a memorial to the scholars who found and studied them. 

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The arresting visage of Sir John Myres, “the pioneer of Cypriot archaeology,” hangs beside objects from Cyprus. A student of Evans, he published the first scholarly guide to a museum collection, in which finds were listed by context and findspot as well as object type.

Upon entering the museum, one walks through a charming hall of sculptures of various date and subject. They include the Muse of History, Clio, a selection of Roman emperors, and a smattering of Greek gods.

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The front hall in the Ashmolean, with a more sparing display than in most other rooms. The room is well supplied with benches– not always the case in museums.

Turning left from this hall, I was confronted by two colossal Egyptian figures of the “ithyphallic” god Min. Six thousand years ago, it seems, at the dawn of human history, people were very much preoccupied with erect penises. Plus ça change…

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These massive figures are from the Egyptian site of Koptos, excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie. For technical reasons, the… em… protruding bits had to be sculpted separately from the bodies and inserted.

Petrie offered these sculptures from earliest Egypt to the British Museum, which turned them down because they offended the Victorian sensibilities of the curators. So he gave them instead to the Ashmolean.

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This is one of my favorite photos from the museum–it’s a room in which objects from different cultures around the world are mingled. The place was full of artists drawing and painting.

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A room jam-packed with Greek antiquities of the Archaic and Classical period. The big bronze of Zeus is a reproduction, but quite at home in this room.

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An early Archaic basin on a stand, meant to hold water for purification. These were placed outside of sacred areas.

The museum’s name comes from Elias Ashmole, who gave his Cabinet of Curiosities and book collection to Oxford in the 17th century. Ashmole was an alchemist and a collector of antiquities, manuscripts, and natural oddities. He is said to have approached several rich widows simultaneously, hoping to marry one wealthy enough to support his collecting interests. He ended up with Lady Mainwaring, who was twenty years his senior.

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Portrait of Ashmole by John Riley, 1683. He was a royalist supporter of Charles I during the civil war, as you might guess from his luxurious cavalier-style wig. No Puritan he!

The Ashmolean is full of casts, and instead of being ashamed of these and pushing them to the back as “reproductions,” they proudly display them. Casts are wonderful teaching tools which allow students to grasp the size and spatiality of the originals, and this is, after all, a university museum.

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The entrance to the Hall of Casts is flanked by large casts taken from Trajan’s Column.

I focused mostly on the Greco-Roman antiquities, but the museum has galleries of Asian and Islamic art, as well as something unexpected: a huge collection of porcelain and china.

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A Georgian-period dessert service, with china and silver, plus glassware for syllabubs and wine.

Seeing all the tableware reminded me that I was famished, so I went upstairs to the restaurant for a restorative bowl of soup, salad, and glass of Pinot Grigio.

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The rooftop restaurant at the Ashmolean is lovely, and they serve the food on delightfully English tableware.

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A dessert of meringue chunks folded in thick whipped cream with blackberries. Also very English.