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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

What is the Ashmolean Museum?

The Ashmolean Museum is the University of Oxford's museum of art and archaeology that was founded in the 17th century.

Ashmolean Museum

Ashmolean Museum History

The majestic and magnificent Ashmolean Museum is Oxford’s beating cultural heart. Behind the imposing and grand façade is one of the foremost collections of art and archaeology in the country. Step inside and you’ll catch sight of a plethora of ancient Greek statues, rare Egyptian mummies, intricate Islamic pottery, works by Renaissance masters Raphael and Michelangelo, Samurai armour and figurines dating from as early as 3,000 BC. This museum is nothing if not eclectic.

How did such an impressively diverse collection come to Beaumont Street? And whose idea was it to bring all these objects and ideas together under one roof? It’s a story that spans several centuries and it begins 80 kilometres east downriver, in London. In 1662, John Tradescant the Younger, a celebrated botanist and gardener to the King of England, died. Tradescant had travelled far and wide during his lifetime, collecting rare species of plants and seedlings and bringing them home to England. During his travels he had also acquired many rare objects, artefacts and curiosities. Unusually for the time, he had turned his house into a mini museum (known as ‘The Ark’), charging the public a small fee to come and visit the items on display. The scope and extent of the collection was perfectly captured by a visitor to the Tradescants’ house in 1634, who described it as a place ‘where a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more curiosities than hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell’.

Tradescant was great friends with a man named Elias Ashmole, a noted antiquary, politician and student of alchemy, who had financially supported him and funded the production of a catalogue of the Tradescant collection. When Tradescant died, he bequeathed the majority of his impressive collection to Ashmole. This act was not uncontroversial, however. Tradescant’s widow, Hester, argued that Elias Ashmole had tricked her husband into signing a new version of the will when drunk and that in fact the collection should belong to her. She took Ashmole to court to resolve the disagreement and restore the collection to the family home. The legal wrangling went on for some time.

In 1674, Ashmole moved into the house next door to Hester and began to move some objects from her house into his. In 1678, the case still not fully settled, Hester was found drowned in a garden pond. The precise circumstances surrounding her sudden death remain obscure, but it did make it possible for Ashmole to take over the entire collection. Ashmole made a gift of the Tradescant Collection, together with material he had collected independently, to Oxford University on condition that a suitable home be built to house the materials and make them available to the public. The Ashmolean Museum was completed in 1683 and is considered by some to be the first truly public museum in Europe. Unlike previous collections assembled by aristocrats, this one was open to anyone, regardless of rank, who could afford the entrance fee.

However, the building you see today was not constructed until many years later. The first Ashmolean Museum was on Broad Street, where the History of Science Museum can now be found. It moved to its current location in the 1840s and the architecture reflects the prevailing Greek Revival style. It’s not all old though. In the 2000s, the museum shut for several years and underwent another renovation, its interior now an impressive and airy combination of steel and glass.

The collection remains true to the global scale of Tradescant’s and Ashmole’s interests. A visit here will educate you about different cultures and artistic movements worldwide.

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