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June 28 2010

The Ashmolean hasn't sold its soul

I may have had my doubts about its recent refurb, but this Oxford museum now ranks among the world's greatest, as a dazzling new archaeological exhibition proves

After its ambitious renovation, Oxford's Ashmolean Museum has begun to look like a major museum in a major city. The gallery has a world-class collection, encompassing the archaeological treasures of Lord Arundel and Arthur Evans, the cabinet of curiosities of Elias Ashmole, and one of the most fascinating Renaissance paintings anywhere, Piero di Cosimo's Forest Fire.

Still, I wasn't sure about the refit when I made my first visit to the reopened museum recently. I liked the old place. Now, there is in effect a new building inserted into its centre, with a light-filled and spectacular atrium linking galleries reimagined as a tour of world cultures, constantly stressing east-west connections and global views. I found it a bit loud, to be honest. The displays are didactic in a way that is, at times, a bit intrusive – in the Roman gallery, for example, where a massive illuminated map of the Roman empire distracts you from the old stuff in cases at the sides.

But I soon cheered up. Everything is beautifully lit, clearly captioned and inviting. Superb Greek vases held me entranced. The current exhibition, The Lost World of Old Europe, is a brilliant survey of a neolithic culture that achieved very high levels of sculpture, including rare models of prehistoric houses. The Danube valley, it turns out, is one of the true cradles of humanity. The ceramics here are of a very high quality – often voluptuously beautiful – and this simple, serious archaeological encounter demonstrates that this museum is far from selling its intellectual soul.

The Ashmolean joins other museums around the country, from Manchester to Cambridge, that have turned themselves into dazzling culture palaces that rival the rich city museums of the US. I am glad so much renewal has been achieved by museums during the good times – it will give them some ballast in the rocky years ahead.


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