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Monday, June 6, 2011

Opening Up the Known World to the Known World

Elias Ashmole's coat of arms, 1925, in a window of the
Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Combine acquisitiveness with perseverance, ambition, and wealth, and you have Elias Ashmole.  This son of a saddler lived a life of varied experiences, a lot of learning, and the desire to share.  It is thanks to his efforts that we have the first public museum in the world - the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.

Elias Ashmole by John Riley, 1683.

Oxford began displaying objects with the University Art Collection, which began modestly in the 1620s with some portraits and objects of curiosity.  It was based in the Upper Reading Room in the Bodleian Library.  One of the curiosities was Guy Fawkes' lantern.  Jacob's Coat of Many Colors was supposedly included, but is now lost.  (?!?)  In 1636 and 1657 coins and medals were added.  In the 1660s and 1670s more portraits were added, then historical paintings,  landscapes, and scenes of contemporary life.

Guy Fawkes' lantern.

In 1677 Ashmole donated his collections on the condition that a suitable building be erected to house them and that they would be available to the public.  The first building - the Ashmolean Museum - opened in May of 1683.

The "Old Ashmolean", now the Museum of the History of Science.

The collections outgrew their space, and there were many sculptures donated that could not be shown.  In 1845 a new edifice was built that housed both the Ashmolean and the Taylor Institution, which accommodates the modern languages department.  The museum contains fine art and archaeological treasures, including the bequest of Sir Arthur Evans of Minoan fame (and the Keeper of the Ashmolean from 1884-1908).

The "New" Ashmolean Museum.  Image courtesy www.ashmolean.com.

The present Ashmolean was created in 1908, and combines the collections from the original Ashmolean with those from the aforementioned University Art Collection.  Some of the paintings from the Bodleian were included.  It was significantly remodeled between 2006 and 2009 (adding two floors), and reopened in November of 2009.

A modern staircase added in the latest remodel.

When the new edifice was built in 1845, the "Old Ashmolean" was used as office space for the Oxford English Dictionary staff.  Since 1924 the building has been used for the Museum of the History of Science, and includes early scientific instruments given to Oxford by Lewis Evans (brother of Sir Arthur Evans) featuring the world's largest collection of astrolabes.

Astrolabes image courtesy of DocBrown.com.

Ashmole himself was an alchemist and antiquarian.  He had studied at Oxford while he served as an ordnance officer for the King's forces there.  He held many military posts, but never participated in any actual fighting.  In 1669 he received a Doctorate in Medicine from Oxford.  His loyalty to his alma mater was his impetus to leave Oxford his collections.

The Alfred Jewel, an Anglo-Saxon ornament made in the reign of King Alfred
the Great in the late 9th century and discovered in 1693.  Donated to the
Ashmolean Museum by Colonel Nathaniel Palmer.

Ashmole was one of the first Freemasons in England, and was purported to possess the secret of the Philosopher's Stone.  From his writings we know that he was also a Rosicrucian.  Most likely his involvement in both groups was for social reasons, rather than religious, as he left little details about his association with either group.

Coins from the Ashmolean collection.

His published works are still considered valuable, and he preserved many works in his alchemical publications that would have been lost otherwise.  In 1650 he published Fasciculus Chemicus under the pseudonym James Hasolle.  It was an English translation of two Latin alchemical works.

Cover page of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum,
image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.

His most important alchemical work was published in 1652, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, an annotated compilation of alchemical poems in English.  Despite his interest in alchemy, he appears to have been a student rather than a practitioner. His last alchemical book was The Way to Bliss, published in 1658.  Said to be studied by Isaac Newton, it recommended ways to prevent illness by a good diet, moderate exercise, and enough sleep.

Close-up of the engraving from the above title page,
image courtesy of www.ashmolean.com.

There is still controversy about his motives for the Ashmolean.  John Tradescant the Elder was a gardener to various nobles, ending up as the Keeper of His Majesty's Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms for Charles I.  He had many opportunities to travel and did so, collecting mainly botanical specimens.  His son, John Tradescant the Younger followed in his father's footsteps.  In 1634 he was admitted as a freeman to the guild, the Worshipful Company of Gardeners.  He went to Virginia to gather plants, eventually taking up his father's position with the king.

Portrait of John Tradescant the Younger, 1652, attributed to
Thomas De Critz, image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 1652, Ashmole helped Tradescant the Younger catalog the Tradescant collection, Musaeum Tradescantianum, and Ashmole published it in 1656. Tradescant the Younger left the collection to Ashmole, but his widow fought for it. The courts awarded it to Ashmole.  When the museum was built in Oxford and all the items were moved there, the Tradescant collection was significantly larger than Ashmole's.  This added fuel to the fire that Ashmole was trying to take credit away from the Tradescants and keep the glory of the collection for himself. However, much of Ashmole's collection had been previously burned in a fire.

Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, 17th century,
attributed to Cornelis De Neve.

Ashmole also keep notes on his life in diaries, which he planned to use for an autobiography.  It was never written, but the notes have been an important source for information on his life and times.  Two-thirds of his library was left to the Bodleian when he died, again serving as fodder to the notion that he intended the museum for the Tradescant collection rather than his own.

Linear B Tablet, circa 14th century BCE.  Donated by Sir Arthur Evans in 1910.

An interesting man who lead a busy life.  Most importantly, whatever his motives, he contrived to share what he learned - whether in books or the Ashmolean Museum - and we are richer for it.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum.

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