Ashmolean Museum: The oldest public museum in Britain
The Ashmolean Museum opened its doors to the public in 1683 as the first public museum in Britain and possibly the oldest museum in the world. The Ashmolean continues to be at the heart of intellectual pursuits in Oxford where its outstanding art and archaeological collections have inspired people throughout the centuries. The museum was originally built to house the collections of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), a celebrated antiquarian who catalogued and later received the large collection of two gardeners, John Tradescant, father and son. The Tradescants voyaged overseas, shipping back new and exotic plant specimens for their employer, the Earl of Salisbury. In the course of their travels they also acquired a remarkable collection of curiosities that included botanical, geological and zoological items as well as man-made objects. Elias Ashmole acquired the collection upon the death of John the younger and donated it to Oxford University as a gift for the benefit of the public in 1677.
The original Ashmolean Museum consisted of a single exhibition space accompanied by a chemistry laboratory and rooms for undergraduate lectures. It has since grown to become a world-class institution occupying six floors with nearly 70 exhibition rooms and public spaces after a £61 million redesign project in 2009. Two galleries at the Ashmolean are dedicated to the display of Japanese art: Japan 1600-1850 and Japan from 1850: The Shikanai Gallery. Parts of the collections can also be seen in themed cross-cultural displays across the Museum.
There has been Japanese material in the Ashmolean from the earliest stages of the Museum’s history: Elias Ashmole’s founding collection included a Japanese lacquered shield and a pair of Japanese zôri, described in Ashmole’s original inventory as ‘sandals made of twigs’. However, the majority of the Japanese collection, which now comprises around 11,000 objects, was acquired after the opening of the Eastern Art Department in 1962. Of particular importance are the outstanding collections of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century export porcelain and Meiji era (1868-1912) decorative arts. Other highlights include substantial holdings of paintings, woodblock prints, lacquerware, netsuke and inrô, sword furniture and other metalwork. One of the best loved items on display at the Ashmolean is a ceremonial suit of armour, or yoroi, that was given to Magdalen College by Prince Chichibu (1902-1953), the second son of Emperor Taishô, after he studied at Magdalen College in the 1920s. The armour is on long-term loan to the Ashmolean, where it is displayed prominently at the centre of the Japan galleries.
A tea house, built by Japanese craftsmen in the Japan galleries in 2009, continues to act as a focus for displays and activities around chadô, the Japanese tea ceremony. We organize monthly demonstrations and currently have a special display of contemporary tea wares. This small display is one of several events organized at the Ashmolean in collaboration with the Oxford Anagama Kiln Project, for AREThé, a festival established in 2016 in Paris to promote the appreciation of contemporary Japanese art through chadô. The display is on until mid-January 2018 – perfect timing for those visiting the area during the winter break.
Special exhibitions of Japanese art are held regularly in the museum’s dedicated Asian Art exhibition gallery. Autumn 2018 will see an exhibition of surimono from the collection, most of which have never been displayed before. The Ashmolean also runs a programme of touring exhibitions. Currently two exhibitions of Japanese prints are touring the UK: Japanese Ghosts and Demons has just closed at Brading Roman Villa, and Hiroshige’s Japan: Views of Mount Fuji will open at the Broadway Museum in February.
The Japanese collections are available for closer viewing and study by appointment in the Eastern Art Study Room (contact firstname.lastname@example.org). Much of the Japanese material, as well as virtual visits to a number of past exhibitions and related publications, is also available via the departmental website Eastern Art Online, created as part of the Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art. The Ashmolean Museum as a whole has recently embarked on a major project to digitise its collections, with an initial target of making 250,000 objects available online by 2020. The first phase of this project will be launched later this month, after which we will be adding and updating records – including Japanese material – regularly.
A new Eastern Art Blog regularly provides informal insights into our collections and current exhibitions.
Dr Clare Pollard
Curator of Japanese Art, Ashmolean Museum
All images © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH
Opening hours: 10am-5pm, Tuesdays to Sundays (Closed Mondays)*
*Please check the museum’s website for Christmas opening hours.
Irvine, G. A Guide to Japanese Art Collections in the UK, 2004. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing.
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