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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of the Museum of Oxford

What is the Museum of Oxford?

The Museum of Oxford is a museum of archaeology and social history documenting the history of the city and its people.

Museum of Oxford Entrance

Museum of Oxford History

For centuries, the historic centre of Oxford and its ‘dreaming spires’ have served as inspiration for many writers and artists. This area, filled with narrow streets and grand sandstone façades, has been the subject of notable poems by W. H. Auden, Matthew Arnold, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. But the latter, in his famous poem Duns Scotus’s Oxford, describes the city beyond its university centre as ‘base and brickish’ and ‘graceless’ in its growth, and is clearly on the ‘gown’ side of the age-old town versus gown divide. This museum seeks to redress the balance by documenting the development of the city as a whole and celebrating all the people who have contributed to Oxford's history.

Now housed in the city’s Town Hall on St Aldate’s Street, neighbouring monolithic Christ Church, the Museum of Oxford first opened in 1975, in the former premises of Oxford’s old City Library. In 2018, the museum underwent a massive redevelopment project, re-opening three years later having tripled in size at the cost of £2.8 million. The exhibits now number around 750, and tell the story of the overlooked people of the city of Oxford, rather than just its university, through objects, community-driven exhibitions, and school resources.

The museum explores three main themes. The first, ‘Every Community Leaves its Mark’, focusses on the successive waves of settlers in Oxford, tracking their history and material (and immaterial) legacies. From the Romans, through the Anglo-Saxons, to the many Welsh workers who moved here after the financial crash of 1929, the exhibit explores how Oxford has been shaped by its population and the contemporaneous social developments that affected them. ‘Changing City’ examines Oxford as a site of conflict and then as an industrial centre. From the chaos of the Reformation to the booming car-manufacturing business brought to the area by Morris’ Mini Motors, you’ll gain a sense of what life was like here in the past for the wider populace beyond the college walls. The third theme, ‘Civic Pride’, explores the ‘brand’ of Oxford and the qualities that make the city so unique, emphasising the history of the Town Hall in which the museum is located. These exhibitions are enhanced by a number of interactive elements, so you won’t just stand and read or listen, but are given the chance to engage actively with the rich history of the city.

The museum’s exhibits are eclectic, ranging from Roman pottery to jars of marmalade. They include a fine Elizabethan wall painting rescued from the since-demolished back room of a tavern. (An interesting contemporary of this painting can be found in one of the upper rooms of the present-day Pizza Express, just off Cornmarket Street.) In contrast to this relic of everyday Elizabethan life is an artefact representing everyday life for a small community in Oxford between 1934 and 1959: spikes from the Cutteslowe Walls. Separating council-house tenants from an estate of private houses on Banbury Road, the walls were over two metres high, topped with lethal spikes, and served as a stark reminder of the class division of those decades. Soon after they went up, a campaign was started to demolish them, led by Abraham Lazarus, an activist for the Communist Party of Great Britain. A crowd of over 2,000 gathered on the 11th of May 1935 to call for the demolition of the barrier, but the protesters were dispersed by the police. During the Second World War, a tank demolished part of a wall after it took a wrong turn, but it wasn’t until 1959, when the council bought the land the walls stood on for £1,000, that they were finally taken down.

Immerse yourself in the captivating stories of this historical city with Urbs’ audio tours of Oxford.


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