GATEWAY PROJECT: A FULBRIGHT BLOG





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This blog is an archive for my research, interviews with designers and museum staff, and travel experiences as I explore multilingual design practices in Taiwan and the US.
Fulbright research abroad in Taipei, Taiwan began in March 2021.   

这个博客是关于我个人在旅行交流经验中用中英文做研究访问博物馆陈列设计师和员工的记录。

2021年三月到輔仁大學开始我富布赖特的国外研究。




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ESSAY SERIES: THE FIRST PUBLIC MUSEUM

“The Origin of Public Museum was in Elias Ashmole’s Curiosity Cabinet”



The Ashmolean Museum, Islamic and Asian Art 1800s 

Language: English
Date: Sept 17, 2021
Listening to: Survivor by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

* I am not a scholar of the Ashmolean Museum or British History. If there are mistakes in this blog post that should be corrected, please reach out at connollyce3@gmail.com
In 17th century Europe, where could you go to see cultural artifacts, new medical treatments, and mystical objects from faraway lands? You would have to know a guy… and most likely be a guy. European colonization of Asia and the New World  created a demand for “exotic” objects that flowed into the private homes of wealthy, educated men. Curio cabinets were a sign of wealth and gentlemanly scholarship, as it was in vogue to be familiar with many scientific disciplines. The most popular scholarships were natural history, medicine, mathematics, alchemy, astrology and magic . An upperclass sub-culture sprung up around acquiring valuable “rarities” and then welcoming friends and scholars into your house to tour the collection (Ntoulia). When the Ashmolean Museum opened its collection of rarities to the public in 1683, it set into motion museum practices that continue to echo in our contemporary institutions.


John Tradescant, father and son, were gardeners and travelers whose botanical preservations grew into two lifetimes worth of collections from all over the world. Although not the largest collection in Europe, Tradescant’s rarities was well-known in Britain because the collection (nicknamed “The Ark”) was open for view to anyone who came by their house in Lambeth, South London (Ashmolean). In 1659, a legal deed of gift recorded that John Tradescant Jr. entrusted his valuable collection to Elias Ashmole. Ashmole was a leading scholar in England, an Oxford man, as well as dozen other titles that allows the Ashmolean Museum’s website to describe him as “a true Enlightenment polymath.” What the museum’s website skips over is the murky string of events after the deed of gift was signed. Legal documents and surviving letters tell us about Tradescant’s two frantically rewritten wills, his death in 1662, his widow Hester Tradescant “hysterically” testifying in court that the collection should never have gone to Ashmole, the London court ruling in Ashmole’s favor, and then her body being found drowned in her own pond on a quiet April morning in 1678 (MacGregor, 41-43).


Trying to uncover the real heroes and victims of this bewildering story remains difficult for historians. What we know for certain is that Ashmole had different plans for the items now in his possession, and immediately drew up a proposal to donate it to Oxford, his alma mater. Oxford agreed to provide a new building to house the collection. As with Tradescant’s previous exhibition on their property, the objects would again be open to public view in the new museum. Ashmole’s donation required that the building include a chemistry lab, a lecture hall, and that his colleague Dr. Plott be named as the first Keeper of the Museum. At the time it was built, the chemistry lab was state-of-the art and Plott immediately arranged the first modern Chemistry classes at Oxford (MacGregor, 44). This is a good example of how the 17th-century institutions differed from public museums today: since many of these foreign objects were new to English scholars, the museum space was more like a laboratory for active study and discussion. While undoubtedly many visitors arrived to passively ooh and ahh at the oddities, the museum saw itself as a place of research. However, the research practices in 1683 were still only early stabs at modern scientific thinking. For example, what institution in Oxford today would “include a crystal ball probably used by Ashmole for ‘crystal-gazing’ and making predictions” ? (Ashmolean).




Ashmole’s original vision for how visitors would experience the collection was through small group tours lead by the Keeper (director) or Custos (curator). Although well-connected gentlemen could arrange a set time to meet with a specific Custos, there were set hours for public tour everyday. If a group arrived while a tour was already underway, then they would wait at the entrance for their turn. In the fifth point of Ashmole’s proposal for the museum he lays out the terms for visitor attendance:

“That the Rarities etc: shall be shown throughout the year, except Sundays and Holidays, (unless there be a special occasion) from eight o clock in the morning until eleven, & from two in the afternoon until five in the Summer half year, & from two to four in the Winter. And constant attendance to be there given during these times, by that Person that shall be appointed and undertaken to show the same” (MacGregor, 50).

This emphasis on “Constant attendance” to the group was necessary because visitors were able to handle and touch the objects on display, as was the norm in earlier settings when a collector would invite friends into his home and show off the collection one by one.


But after Ashmole’s death and the departure of the original Keeper Dr. Plott, there are records that this orderly guided tour plan was not being followed by the museum staff. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, a wealthy German scholar on a tour of Europe, recorded that he and his brother wanted to visit the museum on  August 23, 1710, but decided to come back another day after seeing “the upper room so crowded with country folk as it was market day” (MacGregor, 62). He returned later and noted the deterioration of the objects were not so bad as he assumed “since the people impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion, and as I mentioned before, even the women are allowed up here for a sixpence, they run here and there, grabbing at everything and taking no rebuff from the Sub-Custos.” This scene describes a melting pot of social and educational backgrounds that was unheard of England, which was still doing its best to ignore the Enlightenment teachings of social equality happening across the pond. Was the first public museum so radical as to immediately welcome the masses into the hallowed halls of Oxford?


It turns out the public admittance to the museum has less to do with a liberal concern for educational welfare, and more to do with needing money. The original documents that set up the Ashmolean Museum had included a suggested salary for its employees, but the details were never fully ironed out before Ashmole’s death. So the paltry salaries were paid through a set dividend of the admission sales (51), which explains the overcrowding and rowdiness that Uffenbach found seventeen years after the founding of the museum. It’s easy to see the irony in the fact that many of the problems we ascribe to museums today (such as underpaid staff, lack of support from sponsored University or government, over-reliance on ticket sales leading to high admission prices) were already being felt in the original public museum.


Another classic museum criticism is that the Keepers and the curators are cushy academics who are more easily found keeping hours at the pubs than their offices. Uffenbach testily recorded that the Ashmolean Keeper at the time, David Parry, was a no-show at one scheduled tour and then late to the next one as he was regularly drunk (“Mr. Parry, cannot show strangers over the museum for guzzling and toping”), and that the Sub-custos was no better, being a generally “ridiculous fellow” (66). Although Uffenbach is just one person out of many who visited the museum, his opinions on the Ashmolean were shared by other Oxford men. In a showcase of high English wit, the collection was given the nickname “Knickknackatory” behind closed doors (59).


But, why should we care about the snide comments of the British scholarly elite? It seems that the Ashmolean was fascinating to the people who came to see the treasures and oddities inside. One visitor to the collection remarked that at the Ashmolean Museum ‘a man might in one day behold…more curiosities than he should see if he spent all his life in travel’ (Ashmolean). The items that were most beloved, such as the stuffed dodo bird and the mantle of Pocahontas’s father Powhatan, were able to be touched and discussed by people who would have never otherwise been invited to see these objects in the private homes of the elite.  


The history of the Ashmolean Museum continues today, experiencing the institutional growing pains of reinterpreting its collection within the current culture of confronting colonization in museum spaces. While it is far from an unproblematic institution, I feel that it is a great example of how museum scholarship has changed (or not) since the beginning of the establishment of “public” museums. It is a compelling reminder that it is in the nature of museums to reflect the societies that founded them.





Works Cited:

Lubar, Steven. Inside the Lost Museum. LINK. Accessed 17 Sept. 2021.

MacGregor, Arthur, et al. Tradescants Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, 1683 with a Catalogue of the Surviving Early Collections. Clarendon Press, 1983, Durham E-Theses, LINK

Rodini, Elizabeth PhD. “A Brief History of the Art Museum.” Khan Academy, LINK. Accessed 17 Sept. 2021.

Ntoulia, Elissavet. “The Birth of the Public Museum.” Wellcome Collection, 18 May 2017, LINK

“HISTORY OF THE ASHMOLEAN.” Ashmolean Museum Oxford, LINK. Accessed 17 Sept. 2021.

“The Ashmolean and Colonialism.” Ashmolean Museum Oxford, LINK. Accessed 17 Sept. 2021.








   

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