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