Crossing Cultures: Transforming the Ashmolean Museum

Nick Mayhew

Ashmolean Museum

Oxford, OX1 2PH, England

Oxford, United Kingdom
EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award 2012 - Education, training and awareness-raising

Re-developing the Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean was founded in 1683, making it one of the oldest museums in the world. By the beginning of the 21st century, the displays and exhibitions were looking very old fashioned. Although the Museum was free for visitors, only about 380,000 people came each year. The audience was typically middle aged and middle class. We have wonderful collections, so many more people from a much more diverse social base could enjoy the collections if we could persuade them to visit, but too many people just assumed the Museum was not for them. Moreover, when people did come to try out the Museum, they found it hard to find their way around, or to understand the collections, because too often we did not present them clearly enough. Many people, especially those with children, found a visit to our Museum intimidating, and did not come again, or tell their friends it was a welcoming place to go. Frankly the old museum had become tired .

The Ashmolean is owned and funded entirely by the University of Oxford, but the University itself is mostly funded by the state. Increasingly governments were concerned that state funding for museums was only benefitting a small number of well-educated people. Governments argued that we needed to attract more visitors, to justify the funding we received.

Our collections and research are intrinsically valuable and deserve support. Great art and the study of the history of mankind are worthwhile for their own sake. Yet this was a message we were failing to communicate adequately. To justify our funding we had to appeal to a wider public, and to persuade more people of the importance of art and history. This kind of thinking was being applied to all museums in Britain throughout the 1990s. If the Ashmolean was to retain its government funding to continue its scholarly research role, it would also have to serve the public much better as well.

This involved a huge transformation in the whole philosophy of the museum and its staff. Over about 10 years we tried to change the building, the exhibitions, the visitor services - restaurant and shop - the schools and adult education service, and the provision for disabled visitors. Yet while prioritising our visitors' needs, we had to maintain our academic integrity and the care of the collections.
I will not conceal from you that I believe the changes that were introduced in the Museum have been a success. In the first full year after re-opening late in 2009, we attracted 1.2 million visitors, and this is now settling down at just under a million a year. Reviews of the new museum have been uniformly favourable, so the increase in visitor numbers has not entailed any reduction in the quality of our displays. We are making cutting-edge scholarship accessible. However, this was not achieved without much pain and difficulty. The museum staff made huge efforts, and there was much disagreement and debate about what we should do and how to do it. We made many mistakes, and there were things we would certainly do differently if we had to do a similar project again.

Our collections documentation was inadequate, and we had to put in place a hurriedly designed, computerised database, to help us pack, store, and retrieve the collections. We are now developing a much better collections database, but obviously it would have been better to have a proper computerised database in place at the beginning of the project. Realistically, however, such a database takes to years to achieve, and would have delayed the project.

For several years the University's museums have been hoping to establish a joint, off-site store, for the reserve collections.  Ideally such a store should be in place to house the collections which had to be moved out of our Museum during the demolition and re-building phases.

Even though the new building greatly increased the available space in the Museum, most of our funders were more interested in paying for new galleries, than for ls"back of house' space. As a consequence, our new Museum already lacks sufficient office space. An important part of the project, was to encourage all the staff to work together, but the new plans failed to provide a Common R where staff could meet regularly and exchange ideas informally.

The new Museum now provides wheel-chair access to all galleries, and there are four lifts, but the nature of visitor flow and staff location, has meant that one of these lifts is inadequate for the demands made on it, while the others are under-used.

The old Front Door of the Museum was very unwelcoming, and has been replaced with a beautiful new glass door, which allows a fine view into the Museum from outside. The idea was to symbolise the new accessibility of the redesigned Museum. However, we installed a very tall revolving door, which is heavy, and moves only very slowly. These moving doors could have been smaller, within the large transparent surround.

The new Museum provides a cafeacute; in the basement, and a smarter, more expensive Restaurant on the top floor. This Restaurant has a very fine location, with views over the city, but because it lacks street access, many people don't know it is there, unless they visit the Museum. Consequently it is under-used in the evenings. Nevertheless, despite such difficulties, I believe the Museum project as a whole has been a huge success. The collections are now seen by many more people, including children, the disabled, local people as well as tourists, schools and university students and teachers.


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