Despite having visited it on many a rainy Sunday, I always seem to stumble across new rooms in the Ashmolean every time I go. Perhaps through a form of architectural respawning, or maybe just my poor sense of direction, many of the permanent exhibitions in the museum remain shrouded in mystery for me.
I was scrolling through the databases available through SOLO while thinking about what I would write this post on. There were many that caught my eye – perhaps I could plunge into ‘Religion and Urbanity online’, or maybe enter the world of the Utrecht Psalter…tempting as these avenues were, when I spotted the Ashmolean online Catalogue, an idea began to form.
Perhaps this post would be my chance to get to the heart of the museum, once and for all. No more oohing and ahhing over the textile gallery (or the cakes in the cafe) on the lower ground floor. No more slumping in awe on the (rather too comfortable) velvet couches in the cast gallery right next to the entrance. This time I was going to overcome every eye-catching obstacle and make it all the way to the top floor. Using the database as my guide, I would make sure to select objects from parts of the museum I’d never before stepped foot in.
The Ashmolean is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology and it holds a collection that spans over ten thousand years. In recent years, they have been working on digitizing their collection. The Digital Collection programme was established in 2015, and as of now, you can now browse or search 200,000 of the treasures of the Ashmolean online.
With this catalogue at my fingertips, I felt sure I held the key to the most enlightening yet efficient visit to any gallery ever before experienced.
My plan, as it stood, was simple:
- Choose the items I want to visit from the data base.
- Plan a route.
- Get cultured.
Familiarising myself with the database
Whether you’re looking for something specific or just there for a fun like I was, the online collection is a fantastic resource. You can search items based on object type, date, artist/maker, material…the list goes on.
In a moment of weakness, I was in the mood for some 17th century sculpture, so that was where my hunt began.
Once you select object type and date, you can filter your results in the ‘sort by’ drop down. Here is where you could select a specific artist, place, etc. if you so wished. I went for ‘random’, as beyond my predilection for something early modern, I was happy for the database to surprise me.
A feature I found helpful for my purposes was the database showing you whether an item is currently on display or not – if you can visit it in the museum, there with be a small eye icon next to the entry on the online catalogue.
Another great feature for those with a thirst for knowledge in all its forms is the ‘further reading’ section. Catalogues that feature the item you’re looking at will be linked to the page for your convenience. There’s also a ‘reference URL’ so you can easily save the page you’re looking at for later! Perhaps you wish to share this particularly handsome fellow with a pal over coffee (https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/95623), or muse over what Ethel might be thinking of on your commute home after a long day (https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/383401).
Choosing my victims
Once I had settled on date and object type, it was as simple as choosing the items that caught my eye. A mix of small and large, intriguing and classic slowly filled up the top bar of my laptop screen as I opened many a background tab.
After a rigorous selection process (click on the thing that looks cool – patent pending) these beauties made it onto my list:
- One of a pair of Fowlers – 17th century bronze figure
- Sword hilt – mid-17th century
- Mystical ring – 16th – 17th century
- And finally, as this is a library blog after all, a magnificent book case, literally named ‘The great Bookcase’. Mid 19th century
Items selected and museum locations jotted down, I was ready to embark on my mission.
You’ll note that some of these items are not quite sculpture – one is even a book case! My search was also bolstered by the Ashmolean podcast Museum Secrets and some of the fascinating items that are discussed in the bite-sized episodes. The database was a fantastic resource that allowed me to see instantly whether the objects that featured in the episodes were currently on show.
With a plan of action, I felt close to unstoppable. With only my poor sense of direction hindering me, I set out on my mission to get cultured. Item list in hand, I was ready to boldly go where most Oxford inhabitants have gone before…the Ashmolean!
Despite having a slightly humbling few minutes of dithering at the bottom of the what I thought were the stairs to the second floor (but, alas, were not), having a list of the rooms I needed to visit made me feel like something of a consummate gallery-goer. I strode through great halls and corridors with a feeling of purpose, only ever so occasionally getting distracted by the odd shiny thing…
The first stop on my self-made tour was the second floor, gallery 46. Here I was searching for two of the items on my list: the bronze sculpture of a fowler, that is, someone who hunts wildfowl, and the sword-hilt.
I love the tiny details on this first piece! The clothing, the birds hanging from the belt, the barbs of each feather etched into the surface…also I am jealous of his stylish little hat.
What I first noticed first in this gallery, but also throughout my visit, was that going into a space and being on the hunt for specific objects really changed the energy of my experience. It was less of a passive dander, waiting to be impressed by something amazing, but a pointed search, engaging with each item in order to find what I was looking for.
It was also really cool to see the objects I’d looked at in isolation on the database in the context of some sculpture housemates. Looking at these sculptures in the Ashmolean, you see the object not against a plain background as when photographed for posterity, but amongst other bodies.
In my photographs of the ivory sword hilt you can spot the pair of Fowlers posing in the background. Different materials colour the back drop, the deep red gallery walls lending no small amount of drama.
My next stop was the ring display in gallery 56. Here I was looking for the rather murky toadstone rings.
Toadstone, or bufonite (bufo being Latin for toad), was thought to be great for protecting against poison. Not just a moody fashion statement, toadstones have a history of being worn as a protective amulet or charm. It seems that the logic went as follows: toads are poisonous, therefore toadstones (believed to be formed in the heads of toads) protect against poison and even detect it. Please do not bother any of your friendly neighbourhood toads – this origin of the toadstone does not boast the electrifying acclaim of being peer reviewed. Fun fact – toadstones have nothing to do with toads at all, but are actually the fossilised teeth of an extinct genus of ray-finned fish!
Toadstone was allegedly most effective when worn against skin. A lot of these rings that have toadstone in them have open backs so the stone is always in touch with the wearers hand. It was believed that the stone would alert its wearer if they were ever poisoned by heating up or even changing colour. They were seen as something of a cure all, used in treatments for countless conditions and were even thought by some to protect ships from getting wrecked at sea.
Despite all these rather delicious claims to fame, the rings don’t particularly stand out in the display. In fact, I had to lap the jewellery case a couple of times before spotting these mystical little beauties. If you want to take a look for yourself, there is a helpful catalogue of the rings in the display case in folders that are kept near the case in gallery 56.
For the final item we step away from the 17th century and into the Victorian age – peeking round the door of the office of William Burgess, a famous designer and architect of the gothic revival persuasion. Made to hold Burges’s art books, this elaborate bookcase had 14 painters contribute to it – many of them being big names from the pre-Raphaelite movement. Edward-Burne Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Simeon Solomon were among the artists involved. Each one was handsomely rewarded at £5 apiece.
The external decoration relates to the books that would have been housed on that shelf so there is a great variety in the decoration. Biblical scenes mirror stories from ancient Greece and Egypt, and the entire piece is covered in depictions of animals and plants.
This piece is part of the spotlight trail at the Ashmolean, so you can scan the QR code and listen to some of the background of its creation.
With their target of making 25% of their objects available to view online by 2020 reached, the Ashmolean is continuing to make even more of its collection accessible. Collections currently being digitalised include the Egyptian collection and portraits from the collection of Revd F. W. Hope.
What I enjoyed most about this experience was the difference between browsing online to searching for my chosen objects in a physical space. I think I felt more connected to the pieces because I had sought them out. This is not to say I had laser focus…Drifting from room to room in the Ashmolean is a process of delightful distraction – you walk through different exhibitions to reach your destination and charming and unexpected pieces unavoidably catch your eye.
These bonus pieces are not unlike side quests that enhance your journey to your true aim: immunity to everything via proximity to a toadstone. I plan to visit it once a week for the rest of my days in order to experience maximum benefits.
I hope to bug my friends some weekend soon with this makeshift tour – why not put one together yourself with the Ashmolean online database!
 Listen to Lucie Dawkins’ podcast Museum Secrets here for a great mini-podcast in which Matthew Winterbottom, curator at the Ashmolean, discusses toadstones and other magic jewellery at the Ashmolean! https://www.ashmolean.org/museum-secrets