Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

Oxford's treasure chest revels in its new incarnation

The Ashmolean's curators have been truly bold. Old favourites gain new depth as chronology gives way to svelte modernism

In 1634 a young man home on leave from the East India Company peeped inside a house near Lambeth Palace in London called the Ark. It belonged to John Tradescant, "keeper of gardens, vines and silkworms" to Charles I and an obsessive accumulator of objects. The young man was astounded by what he saw, where "a man might in one day behold collected into one place more curiosities than if he spent all his life in travel". It was a good definition of a museum.

Tradescant's collection was to form the basis of Oxford's Ashmolean, claimed as the earliest modern museum in the world. Those of us familiar with the old place recall wandering its dusty passages and cramped chambers, where ghosts of pictures lost in storage jostled with classical nudes seemingly on their knees and begging for release from the gloom. It was here that Sir Arthur Evans buried his Minoan maidens and Lawrence of Arabia his oriental cloaks. Coins, tombs, bronzes, icons, stylae followed. Most of them disappeared from view.

Tomorrow the museum reopens at double its previous size after a £61m hurricane has swept through the place. Nothing in Britain is remotely like it. The new Ashmolean's collection, from fine art to archaeology and design drawn from every age and every corner of the globe, is a microcosm of world civilisation, comparable in range only with New York's Metropolitan.

This is the most exciting new museum anywhere in Britain. The classical Ashmolean facade of 1845 by CR Cockerell has been restored, its portico glaring across at the gothic Randolph Hotel opposite, like a bank manager trying to refuse Count Dracula a loan. Once inside and through the old foyer, we find that the doyen of museum architects, Rick Mather, has taken over. He has ingeniously contrived to fuse 39 new galleries on to the rear of the old building, rising six storeys to a glorious restaurant looking out over the roofs of Oxford.

Somewhere in here are all the old favourites: the Knossos octopus, the Cycladic maiden, the Etruscan warrior, King Alfred's jewel, Powhatan's mantle, Uccello's hunt in the forest, the "Messiah" Stradivarius, Chantrey's worthies, the Raphael drawings, the noble Titians, Poussins, Van Dykes, Constables, Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists. The finest gathering of Dutch still-lifes fills the walls of a single room, an electrifying cornucopia of lobsters, tulips and dead game.

The Ashmolean's curators, under their director, Christopher Brown, have been bold in every sense. They have not only refashioned a great museum but clubbed visitors over the head with their novelty. The old chronology of world culture – "one damned thing after another" – has been shoehorned to fit the newly fashionable "interpretation strategy", built on the supposed interconnectedness of things and civilisations.

Things are no problem, indeed I would have liked more of a mix of paintings and sculpture. It is sad that a room devoted to Tradescant's original Lambeth "cabinet of curiosities" is buried in a basement surrounded by galleries devoted to such leaden topics as conservation, writing and the human image. Tradescant should be put in pride of place in the main foyer, an hors d'oeuvre to the whole museum, much as the British Museum's enlightenment library evokes the drawing room of a Georgian collector.

As for the interconnectedness of civilisations east and west, it risks becoming a didactic sledgehammer, "Crossing cultures, crossing time", reeking of 1990s New Labour and the "joined-up" museum. We can surely see a link between a Roman toga and an Indian sari, or between ceramic wares in differing cultures along the great silk road, without being hit over the head with it. Notices are like A-level multiple-choice papers, their grammar often appalling. Some of the archaeological rooms are classics of curators disempowering (as they would say) the objects and imposing a membrane of meaning between viewer and art. The message of a good museum is that the eye is the best teacher.

The architectural style of the new half of the Ashmolean is a pastiche interwar "moderne", reminiscent of the penguin pool at London Zoo. It is svelte and the presence of so much art relieves its relentless abstraction. But it gives an illusion of a lot of architecture for relatively little display, noticeably in the two sweeping staircase atriums, now de rigeur at such museums as the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum after the staircase disaster at the Tate Modern.

The resulting expanse of white, empty walling yearns for pictures or tapestries. This is a museum, not an airport. The new display cases, many set heavily into the walls behind giant frames, reduce the impact of the objects that cower, half-hidden within. As a result, to wander from the Mather side of the building back into the old Cockerell side, which can be done on every floor, is the best way I know to experience the cultural dislocation of modernism. Cockerell is rich in greens and reds, in dark wood, gilt frames, cornices and door architraves. Here the works of art, especially the pictures, seem at home, as if content to be on the walls of houses for which they were intended. These galleries drop their shoulders and relax. When the Stradivarius was displayed in these surroundings, I am convinced I could hear it sing.

On the new Mather side, every angle is hard, every colour white and the settings inimical to the context from which most of the objects have come. Sound is shrill. Doors and shutters are everywhere, opening and closing on approach as if in a high-security hospital operating theatre. Flickering videos preach the new engagement. Here the Stradivarius stands in its case, silent, aloof and untouchable, one more object frozen and conserved for eternity, never to be played.

Such reservations are only partial and should not detract from the exhilaration of visiting this extraordinary museum – indeed they are stimulated by its argument. Mather's interiors are of the highest quality and Brown's interconnectedness of things can spring nice surprises, such as the similarity between Samuel Palmer's 19th-century portrait of himself and a mural painting of a young man from 2nd-century Egypt.

Besides, Mather's spareness and Brown's holistic interpretation have come to be favoured by the 20th-century's museum grandees. The big museum project must surely be coming to an end, at least in the western world. The public sector is financially exhausted and private money and fancy architecture are turning elsewhere – in Boris Johnson's London, to the high-rise luxury flat.

Fine arts will return to the Latin quarters, to local galleries and private collectors. Britain may see a revulsion against the giant accumulator museums such as the Ashmolean and the London megaliths, with their miles of underground shelving stashed with works kept from public view. Provincial galleries may start claiming some of the nation's loot of ages, and may get it. Such cash as is available may go their way.

The more reason to greet this last cry of the old regime, confident in both its display and its argument. We may not see its like again. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Don't be the product, buy the product!