Eleven Lesser Known Facts about Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum

Eleven Lesser Known Facts about Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum

by the staff at the Ashmolean

Main entrance to the Ashmolean

If you’re a local or you’ve visited Oxford before, you’ll likely have heard of the Ashmolean Museum.

 Part of the University of Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology holds world famous collections that range from Egyptian mummies to contemporary art, spanning over half a million years of human history.

Here is a list of eleven interesting facts you might not know about the Museum.

1. The Ashmolean is the world’s first public Museum

The Ashmolean opened its doors in 1683 – three hundred and thirty-seven years ago – making it the world’s first public museum and the first university museum.

2. The original collection was acquired by two gardeners

The Ashmolean Museum is named after the wealthy lawyer and scholar Elias Ashmole, who gave his collection to Oxford University having acquired it from two gardeners: John Tradescant, father and son.

Employed by the Earl of Salisbury, the Tradescants travelled the world in search of new and exotic plant specimens for the Earl’s gardens. In the course of their travels they also acquired a remarkable collection of botanical, geological and zoological items as well as man-made objects. The Tradescants established a museum in Lambeth, South London, known as ‘The Ark’ to house their collection in 1634. Visitors to the Ark commented that ‘a man might in one day behold…more curiosities than he should see if he spent all his life in travel.’

You can still see much of this original collection in the Ashmolean Story gallery.

John Tradescant, father and son

3. The Ashmolean wasn’t always on Beaumont Street

The original Ashmolean Museum was in Broad Street in the building that is now the History of Science Museum. Members of the public were admitted to the Ashmolean Museum right from the outset – an extremely controversial policy in the 17th century!

The entrance to the Ashmolean in it’s original building

4. The Museum is an integral part of Oxford University’s research and teaching

As a university museum, the collections are used for study, teaching, and research as well as being on display for the public. This means that as well as creating exhibitions, looking after our collections and researching objects, the curators also have an important role in teaching students.

5. You can see Guy Fawkes’ lantern from the night of the Gunpowder Plot

One of the Ashmolean’s most famous objects is Guy Fawkes’s lantern. 

Guy Fawkes is said to have been carrying this iron lantern when he was arrested in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament on the night of 4–5 November 1605. Fawkes and his Catholic co-conspirators planned to kill the Protestant King James I by igniting barrels of gunpowder concealed under firewood in the cellar during the state opening of Parliament when the King, Commons and Lords would all have been present  Thanks to an anonymous warning, the cellars were searched, Fawkes was discovered and the plot failed. 

This lantern is included in the Ashmolean’s new Spotlight Trail which guides you through the Museum stopping at 12 highlight objects.

6. The Ashmolean used to house the world’s last Dodo specimen…

The famous Oxford Dodo, now on display in Oxford University’s Natural History Museum, used to be in the Ashmolean’s collection. The dodo, extinct by the 1700s, was listed in 1656 in a catalogue of the Tradescant collection as ‘Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie, being so big’.

7. Take a look at T.E. Lawrence’s robes…and doors!

Not only does the Ashmolean have on display an Arab ceremonial dress worn by Lawrence of Arabia, we also have the carved wooden doors that were used for his pool house in the garden of his Dorset cottage.

Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence was a British archaeologist, army officer, diplomat and writer.  He is renowned for his role during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule during the First World War.  The breadth and variety of his associations and his ability to describe them vividly in writing earned him international fame as Lawrence of Arabia, a title which was used for the 1962 film based on his wartime exploits.

8. It’s home to the ‘Messiah’ violin

The Ashmolean has one of the most famous violins in the world – The ‘Messiah’.  Made by Antonio Stradivari, it earned its name from a prior owner who used to boast about it but hardly ever showed it to anyone until someone said; ‘it’s like the Messiah, always promised and never appearing’. 

This violin was made when Stradivarius was at the height of his powers, making instruments that have never been bettered. It owes its great fame, however, not to the sounds that it makes but to the astonishing condition in which it survives. The varnish is almost unworn, the carving is as crisp as the day it was made and the painted edge-work on the scroll survives intact.

The ‘Messiah’ violin

9. See one of the earliest human portraits…

The Ashmolean has on display one of the earliest attempts at portraiture.

‘The Jericho skull’ is one of several human skulls from the site of a Neolithic settlement at Jericho, Palestine. It was originally plastered and painted and still has shells inset for the eyes. Recovered from excavations by Dame Kathleen Kenyon, it was made around 7000 BC.

‘The Jericho Skull’

10. You can explore a large percentage of the Ashmolean’s collections from the comfort of your home

The Ashmolean now has over 191,000 objects online that you can browse or search for at home. Explore these at collections.ashmolean.org.

11. And finally, it’s the home of the ‘Penis Plate’

One of the Ashmolean’s more bizarre, yet popular, works is affectionately known as the Penis Plate.  Created in 1536 by Francisco Urbino, this dish depicts a human head made up of small images of penises. It’s one of the most celebrated pieces of Italian Renaissance maiolica.

A ribbon-like strip running around the back of the head bears an inscription, written in reverse, which translates as “every man looks at me as if I were a head of dicks”.

It was acquired in 2003 with the support of the Art Fund who said “This magnificent piece really made us sit up and take notice – we’re often asked to support extraordinary things, but we’d never seen anything like this before.”


The Ashmolean Museum is now open to the public again.

Booking is required for general admission and the Young Rembrandt exhibition.

Find out more at ashmolean.org

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