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The Ashmolean museum in Oxford, once a dusty old labyrinth of higgledy piggledy rooms and illogical corridors, has been transformed almost beyond recognition in a £61m renovation by Rick Mather Architects.
The result - a light-infused six-level palatial showcase - not only doubles the exhibition space available to the museum, but also opens it up to a wider audience and allows an airing for previously unseen collections and artefacts.
And what artefacts they are: already home to the world’s best collection of pre-dynastic Egyptian materials and the largest and most important collection of Raphael drawings in the world, the Ashmolean can now boast a number of ‘new’ star attractions, including – our personal favourite – Laurence of Arabia’s robes.
The oldest museum in the oldest university in the English speaking world, the Ashmolean offers people – and Oxford’s aspiring academia – to be taught from the objects of history just as the Bodlean Library offer the opportunity to be taught from the texts.
Briefed simply to expand the space, Rick Mather explains he wanted to avoid doing a pastiche of the existing neoclassical Charles Cockerell structure because he felt it would “be an insult to him” and also it would have “looked stupid”.
Instead the solution is an elegant contemporary extension consisting of a rhythmic series of double and single height spaces, connected with mezzanines, panoptic windows and footbridges.
At every point the visitor is made to feel as though there is a way through and a connection to the outside world – avoiding the trapped feeling the old museum engendered. Here, “You always know you have an escape,” says Mather.
Not that many people will be itching to leave the space, with its fascinating collections. Another of the previously unseen pieces, recently acquired by the museum, is the Titian painting ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ – or ‘Love Conquers All’ – not seen in public since 1960.
Inside the new galleries the museum’s curators have worked with design company Metaphor to reorganise the collections in a new way, somewhat controversially forcing people to read the objects in a new context.
The strategy, called “Crossing Cultures Crossing Borders” deals with an exchange of cultural styles and objects and aims to show an interrelated world culture through history and demonstrate how civilisations developed alongside each other.
Bound to meet some scepticism amongst traditionalists, the concept works better in practice than we first expected – far from juxtaposing objects, it instead creates a seamless sequence between the galleries.
Described by the New York Times as the “$100m Museum”, the renovation has also brought the city of dreaming spires its first rooftop restaurant, reached via a cascading staircase that runs up through the new atrium.