Rather decisively, and without hesitation, Oxford’s Ashmolean wins! Indeed, one does gush. The immaculate curation and visionary design ingeniously enable the visitor to look through walls and galleries, crossing over cultures, millennia and media. The use of glass walls, strategically placed showcases and didactic lighting allows for a rather nuanced and flowing experience. An interesting example of how design and space can be used to challenge and think beyond departmental divisions and curatorial borders.
Certainly the museum does follow a curatorial and spatial philosophy not very different from the rest of those we have seen so far. Still, being able to look at Islamic Ceramics and simultaneously at Ancient Egyptian statues in both their independent galleries is essential in asserting the importance of the intersectionality of material culture – regardless of time, ideology or space.
In terms of collections, the Ashmolean houses both Archaeology and Art objects – whatever they mean or involve and the many crossovers that fall in-between. Seemingly conscious, the showcases contain extraordinary specimens of profound craftsmanship and moving beauty. The text is careful to make clear that the aesthetic is no mere accident or superficiality, but a result of well established craftsmanship, integral to process and intent.
The Ashmolean’s ethnographic collections were given to the Pitt-Rivers Museum, another University institution and a rather unfortunate example at that. The visitor has to walk through a corridor of taxidermied and fossilised animal corpses (constituents of the Natural History Museum) before entering the Pitt-Rivers actual space. Both museums are housed in a neo-gothic citadel of brick and steel.
The effect is immediate; the sudden shock of stuff is compounded with an inexplicable sense of oppression. The prelude of death in the cloister-like corridors does nothing to prepare the visitor for what is in store. In retrospect, however, it is almost too basic that both collections should be housed under one roof; an unabashed statement on where the base cultures of the world belong. Visually, the museum is compelling without question, the Victorian cabinets, the colours, the violence, romance and savagery of both the collector and the collected is unmistakable.
We are met by Salma Caller who gives us a short introduction, asks us questions and explains the identity crisis the museum is going through. We are later taken behind the scenes to the conservation department and shown two of the projects they are currently working on. The experience is paradoxically monotone, interesting, dull as well as informative.
The Pitt-Rivers, one seems to understand, is keen to show the visitor how living cultures were once ethnographically treated and displayed in museums; a museum of a museum. At the same time, there is an uneasy attempt to sympathetically translate the controversial collections and the ideology the museum once embodied. Whereas the former is perhaps more grounded, the latter seems confused and unclear. The true merit of the Pitt-Rivers, is perhaps how it remains an ugly reminder that even the Ashmolean, with its wonderfully sterile interiors and meticulously displayed objects shares, like the many other museums that embellish and litter the world, this problematic history and challenging present.