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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of the History of Science Museum in Oxford

What is the History of Science Museum?

The History of Science Museum in Oxford houses early scientific instruments in the old Ashmolean Museum building from the 17th century.

The Old Ashmolean Building (now the Museum of the History of Science) in Oxford

History of Science Museum History

Today’s History of Science Museum can make a convincing case that it’s the world’s oldest museum. Then come the caveats: oldest continually existing, purpose-built museum... Erected in 1683, this building was the brainchild of Elias Ashmole, an English dabbler in many things – alchemy, antiquarianism, and royalist politics. When monarchy was restored with Charles II, Ashmole was rewarded for his staunch loyalty with a number of official posts, which assisted in the development of his personal wealth and antiquarian collection of scientific instruments, vital for the establishment of this first ‘Ashmolean’ museum. Ashmole originally exhibited his collection in order to institutionalise the new developments in scientific understandings of nature; a working chemical laboratory carried out experiments in the basement.

In 1924, the donation of Lewis Evans’s collection of historic scientific instruments created the Lewis Evans Collection, and by 1935 the museum had received more donations, changing its name to the Museum of the History of Science, which was changed minutely again in 2018 to the History of Science Museum. (Strangely, no violent rioting took place.) All items held by the museum are intended for both public display and academic research; in particular, many objects continue to inform work both in the sciences and humanities.

Diptych Dial in the History of Science Museum

veggiefrog, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The current collection comprises objects from across the globe, ranging from ancient Greece and Rome to the early 20th century, and representing almost all aspects of the history of science. It was Evans’s donation, as much as that of Ashmole, that made the museum what it is today. Evans collected scientific instruments assiduously during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also an industrialist and businessman, acting as chairman in the family paper-making firm John Dickinson & Co., and a major shareholder of Watford Football Club. He donated his large collection of sundials, early mathematical instruments, early scientific books, and astrolabes – small ancient handheld models of the universe, often beautifully ornamented, used by astronomers before (and after) the invention of the telescope – to the University of Oxford.

Among the current collection, you’ll find a number of items of particular historical and scientific interest, including astrolabes and sundials owned by Queen Elizabeth I, Cardinal Wolsey, and Nostradamus. The museum’s pièce de résistance is the blackboard used by Albert Einstein during his visit to Oxford in 1931, rescued from historical oblivion by university academics.

Alongside the physical traces of revolutionary moments in the history of science are scientific objects distinguished for more human reasons: the collection includes items like the X-ray machine used by Edward George Spencer-Churchill on his undergraduate friends, and later on injured soldiers in the Boer War; and the pocket diary of Amabel Moseley, the mother of famous physicist (and student of Ernest Rutherford) Henry Moseley, which was used to record her final moments with her son after his tragic death during the Gallipoli campaign, in 1915.

The museum also holds artworks, such as portraits of famous scientists such as Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, and an enormous pastel of the moon, created by the celebrated 18th-century artist John Russell. While Russell was famous for his portraits, his private practice was dedicated to works like this one: over 30 years he ceaselessly made astronomical sketches of the moon, totalling 187 drawings by his death. He was as loyal to the moon as Ashmole to his king, his passion and his ambition to build a museum.

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