The collection includes that of Elias Ashmole which he had collected himself, including objects he had acquired from the gardeners, travellers and collectors John Tradescant the elder and his son of the same name. The collection included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens, and zoological specimens—one of which was the stuffed body of the last dodo ever seen in Europe; but by 1755 the stuffed dodo was so moth-eaten that it was destroyed, except for its head and one claw. The museum opened on 24 May 1683, with naturalistRobert Plot as the first keeper. The first building, which became known as the Old Ashmolean, is sometimes attributed to Sir Christopher Wren or Thomas Wood.
After the various specimens had been moved into new museums, the "Old Ashmolean" building on Broad Street was used as office space for the Oxford English Dictionary. Since 1924, the building has been established as the Museum of the History of Science, with exhibitions including the scientific instruments given to Oxford University by Lewis Evans (1853–1930), amongst them the world's largest collection of astrolabes.
The present building dates from 1841–45. It was designed by Charles Cockerell in a classical style and stands on Beaumont Street. One wing of the building is occupied by the Taylor Institution, the modern languages faculty of the university, standing on the corner of Beaumont Street and St Giles' Street. This building dates from 1845–48 and was also designed by Charles Cockerell, using the Ionic order of Greek architecture. The main museum contains huge collections of archaeological specimens and fine art. It has one of the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, majolica pottery and English silver. The archaeology department includes the bequest of Arthur Evans and so has an excellent collection of Greek and Minoan pottery. The department also has an extensive collection of antiquities from Ancient Egypt and the Sudan, and the museum hosts the Griffith Institute for the advancement of Egyptology. Charles Buller Heberden left £1,000 to the University, which was used for the Coin Room at the museum.
In 2012, the Ashmolean was awarded a grant of $1.1m by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish the University Engagement Programme or UEP. The programme employs three Teaching Curators and a Programme Director to develop the use of the Museum's collections in the teaching and research of the University.
The interior of the Ashmolean has been extensively modernised in recent years and now includes a restaurant and large gift shop.
Between 2006 and 2009, the museum was expanded to the designs of architect Rick Mather and the exhibition design company Metaphor, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The $98.2 million rebuilding resulted in five floors instead of three, with a doubling of the display space as well as new conservation studios and an education centre. The renovated museum re-opened on 7 November 2009.
On 26 November 2011, the Ashmolean opened to the public the new galleries of Ancient Egypt and Nubia. This second phase of major redevelopment now allows the Museum to exhibit objects that have been in storage for decades, more than doubling the number of coffins and mummies on display. The project received lead support from Lord Sainsbury’s Linbury Trust, along with the Selz Foundation, Mr Christian Levett, as well as other trusts, foundations and individuals. Rick Mather Architects led the redesign and display of the four previous Egypt galleries and the extension to the restored Ruskin Gallery, previously occupied by the Museum Shop.
The Sackler Library, incorporating the older library collections of the Ashmolean, opened in 2001 and has allowed an expansion of the book collection, which concentrates on classical civilization, archaeology and art history.
In 2000, the Chinese Picture Gallery, designed by van Heyningen and Haward Architects, opened at the entrance of the Ashmolean and is partly integrated into the structure. The gallery was inserted into a lightwell in the Grade 1 listed building, and was designed to support future construction from its roof. Apart from the original Cockerell spaces, this gallery was the only part of the museum retained in the rebuilding. It houses the Ashmolean’s own collection, but is also used from time to time for the display of loan exhibitions and works by contemporary Chinese artists. It is the only museum gallery in Britain devoted to Chinese paintings.
The Abingdon Sword, an Anglo-Saxon sword found at Abingdon south of Oxford
The Dalboki hoard of Thracian artefacts, central Bulgaria
The Scythian antiquities from Nymphaeum, Crimea
Recent major bequests and acquisitions include:
In 2012 the museum acquired Édouard Manet's Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, painted in 1868, after a public campaign to raise £7.83million while a temporary export bar was placed on it by the RCEWA The campaign received £5.9m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and a grant of £850,000 from The Art Fund.
In 2013 the museum was left a 500 piece collection of gold and silver objets d'art, including many pieces of Renaissance silverware, assembled by the antique dealer Michael Welby. The bequest will be displayed in a new gallery.
In late 2013, art historian and collector Michael Sullivan bequeathed his collection of more than 400 works of art to the museum. The collection, which includes paintings by Chinese masters Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, and Wu Guanzhong, was considered one of the world's most significant collections of modern Chinese art. Ashmolean Museum has a gallery dedicated to Sullivan and his wife Khoan.
Major exhibitions and temporary displays in 2014 include:
Discovering Tutankhamun: a special exhibition, open from July until November 2014, exploring Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Original records, drawings and photographs from the Griffith Institute will be on display.
The Eye of the Needle: English Embroideries from the Feller Collection: a special exhibition, open from August until October 2014, of 17th-century embroideries from the Feller Collection, together with examples from the Ashmolean’s own holdings.
William Blake: Apprentice and Master: a special exhibition, open from December 2014 until March 2015, celebrating the work of William Blake.
Francis Bacon / Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone: a special exhibition, open from September 2013 until July 2014, displaying paintings by Francis Bacon and sculptures and drawings by Henry Moore.
Stradivarius: a special exhibition, open from June until August 2013, exploring the life and work of Antonio Stradivari. It was the first time twenty-one of his instruments, from guitar to cello to violin, were on display together in the UK.
Master Drawings: a special exhibition, open from May until August 2013, displaying a selection of the Ashmolean's on western art collection. The exhibition surveyed drawings of all types by some of the biggest names in art history, including Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as Gwen John, David Hockney and Antony Gormley.
Xu Bing: Landscape Landscript: a special exhibition of the work of Xu Bing, open from February until May 2013. It was the Ashmolean's first major exhibition of contemporary art.
The Alfred Jewel was the inspiration for the Inspector Morse episode "The Wolvercote Tongue", in which the museum's interior was used as a set. The Ashmolean also figures prominently in several episodes of the successor series Lewis, particularly the episode "Point of Vanishing" where the painting The Hunt in the Forest is a key plot element and the characters visit the painting at the museum and are instructed on its features by an art expert before solving the case.
On 31 December 1999, during the fireworks that accompanied the celebration of the millennium, thieves used scaffolding on an adjoining building to climb onto the roof of the Ashmolean Museum stealing Cézanne’s landscape painting View of Auvers-sur-Oise. Valued at £3 million, the painting has been described as an important work illustrating the transition from early to mature Cézanne painting. As the thieves ignored other works in the same room and it has not been offered for sale, it is speculated that this was a case of an artwork stolen to order.
^The galleries are quirky and unpredictable, full of nooks and crannies and yet completely navigable even to the dyspraxically challenged, like me. That’s as much to do with the layout by the exhibition designers Metaphor as with the architecture.Dorment, Richard (2 November 2009). "The reopening of The Ashmolean, review". Telegraph (London). Archived from the original on 5 November 2009. Retrieved 2 November 2009.
^Vickers, Michael, "The Wilshere Collection of Early Christian and Jewish Antiquities in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford," Miscellanea a Emilio Marin Sexagenario Dicata, Kacic, 41-43 (2009-2011), pp. 605-614, PDF. Vickers describes the whole collection, on loan to the museum from Pusey House until bought in 2007. The glass is described at 609-613
^"Itinerary for Inspector Morse Tour". Oxford, England. TourInADay. Retrieved 4 July 2008. "The Ashmolean Museum is home to The Alfred Jewel that inspired the Inspector Morse episode, The Wolvercote Tongue. This episode ... used the inside of the Ashmolean as a set."