Last week I took a day out from my current manuscript to visit the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which has just re-opened after a major re-development. It was lovely to escape from my desk for a day and wander about amongst the collections – with frequent refreshment in the Ashmolean coffee shop! To be honest I probably didn't get to see more than about a third of what the museum had to offer because I spent so long browsing in each section, but that's all to the good since I can go back again to check out the bits I missed.
The Ashmolean was Britain's first public museum. When it opened in May 1683 even the use of the term "museum" was a novelty in English. A few years later (1706) the book "The New World of Words" defined a museum as "a study or library; also a college or Publick Place for the resort of learned men." The collection that Elias Ashmole presented to the public on this occasion had been founded half a century earlier by John Tradescant and featured natural and man-made objects from every corner of the known world. Tradescant had already exhibited his collection to the public for a fee at his house in Lambeth, which had been known as "The Ark" because it was said to contain an example of everything on earth. From 1683 the Ashmolean too was open to any member of the general public, a move that was by no means universally welcomed. One German visitor in 1710 commented with displeasure on the presence of "ordinary folk" in the museum and singled out the women for criticism in particular, saying that they "impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion."
We weren't allowed to handle the objects in the collections, of course, impetuously or not, and there was an entire gallery devoted to conservation and to explaining the damage that could be done by light and touch and other factors, as well as the measures that the conservators took to preserve the items. I particularly liked the way in which the museum featured objects from different cultures across several thousand years. I love looking at objects that were important in people's lives, understanding how they were used and what they meant to individuals. The exhibition of "money" was fascinating because it featured lots of different items that people have used for barter and exchange – everything from glass beads, jewellery and animal teeth to gold and banknotes. There were all sorts of snippets of information that I picked up along the way too. For instance one gallery featured musical instruments alongside some fabulously decorative medieval wall-hangings to demonstrate how the two often went together because in many medieval castles the presence of hangings on the walls improved the acoustics.
I spent a long time looking at the hordes of Roman, Anglo Saxon and Viking treasure because when I see such collections I always wonder about the people who buried them. One of the hordes of Roman coins was the equivalent of 16 years of a Roman foot soldier's pay – no small sum to gather together and hide in the ground. I always wonder who hid these hordes, why they had to leave them, what they were afraid of and why they never came back. Whilst on many occasions I'm sure the owners were killed in battle or lost their homes through enemy raids or war, I wonder if sometimes people hid all their valables only to return later when it was safe and realise that they hadn't marked the spot well enough to find them again.
My favourite section, however, was the gallery devoted to items in Ashmole's original collection, which included several objects that the museum delicately explained were "of dubious provenance." There was one of Henry VIII's hawking gloves alongside a matching embroidered hood for the hawk, a lantern which Guy Fawkes was alleged to have used when he was hiding in the cellars waiting to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 and a plate Charles II had made out of the wood of the oak tree that hid him from the parliamentarian troops after the Battle of Worcester. Whether these items were genuine or not, they fascinated me because they were tangible connections to the past and to people and events I had read so much about. On display was also a pair of gloves that weren't worn at all. They had been given to Queen Elizabeth I by the City of Oxford to mark a visit she made there, but she left them behind because they were apparently too big and unflattering!
Visiting the Ashmolean made me think about the objects that are important to us to keep and why they matter. I love anything that I feel connects me to the past, both in a general way (those historical items that I pick up in the fields around here!) and also in a personal one – photos of the family, my grandmother's jewellery. I doubt that I'll ever have a collection worthy of being incorporated into a museum but I think it's important for individuals to keep things that hold memories or have a special importance. The Ashmolean's theme is "crossing cultures, crossing time" and the items it holds tell a story. It made me wonder what the items are that are important to you and what story do they tell?