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‘Miss’ revisits the Ashmolean

January 29, 2010

Nobody was killed the first  time I went to  Oxford’s  Ashmolean Museum, but they might have been.

View of the Ashmolean Museum from the street

After a long journey cooped up on the bus, the last thing two classes of  eight-year-olds wanted to do was to stare at old stuff in glass cases. The teachers and ‘Parent Helpers’ (of whom I was one)  managed to keep them under control around the museum – in the sense that nothing was actually broken – but by the time we stopped at the service station on the way home, most of the children were stir-crazy.

The teachers – how I admire teachers! – instigated a  game of run-over-the-grass-to-that-wall-and-back. Meanwhile, several of the girls wanted to find the toilets. As I went to escort them across the road, they rushed off on their own.  Ignoring shouts of, “Wait!” they ran straight  into the path of an oncoming car.

The car stopped just in time. The girls fled. Nobody was hurt, but the thought of what might have happened still makes me shudder.

All of which is a very longwinded way of introducing the good news that the revamped Ashmolean is a lot more exciting than the old one.  I spent a delightful afternoon there yesterday. Cleverly concealed behind the traditional facade, the display space has been hugely expanded  – all watched over by Apollo, see below  – and is capped by ‘Oxford’s First Rooftop Restaurant’.

Staircase at Ashmolean Museum with statue of Apollo

As my previous visit consisted largely of counting children and responding to cries of ‘Miss!’  it’s hard to compare the new with the old. But it all seems much lighter, brighter and infinitely more approachable than I remember. The Roman gallery will be small but perfectly formed as soon as they’ve finished labelling everything (these are early days), but the thoughtful way the material is themed means that Roman items are spread across several displays. ‘Human image,’ for example, has a  reproduction statue of Augustus painted in the way his subjects would have seen it.

Painted statue of Augustus with red cloak

My favourite item is more modest.  As one who has knitted several (largely unappreciated) socks over the years, I have to admire the work that went into the making of this  stripy sock for an Egyptian child who lived sometime between AD300 and the early 400’s.

Sock with purple orange and green stripes

Had the photo been executed with similar skill, you would be able to see that the fabric looks like ordinary knitting, although according to the label, it was all done with one needle (yes, some of us do think this is interesting). Sadly the photo is dreadful, so you’ll have to take my word for it – or better still, pop in to see the real thing in the ‘Textiles’ display.

Not to be outdone, I see the very lovely Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is opening its revamped Gallery of Greek and Roman Antiquities tomorrow. Here’s a link to the  BBC’s  slideshow.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks, Ruth, for these links. We’re having a week in Oxford and Cambridge at the end of the month and of course both museums are high on our list of stuff to do. I’m intrigued by the Roman “Swiss Army Knife” in the Fitzwilliam slideshow, esp the fork attachment. I’ve always been told that the Romans didn’t use forks to eat with but this one (like the rest of the utensils) doesn’t look as if it’s detachable so maybe they did use them in some way, but not at table. Any road up I’m keen to see it in the flesh, so to speak.


    • Strange, isn’t it? Aren’t we told that the Saxons didn’t use forks either? Yet if you click on the ‘metals’ link on Martin Weaver’s website, there’s a photo of one from a Saxon grave. http://www.mweaver.co.uk/ So what were they used for? Maybe somebody at the Fitzwilliam will know. Have a great week, Sarah.


  2. PS I don’t know if you’re interested but I just googled this from Rogue Classicism – discussion and comments:

    http://rogueclassicism.com/2010/02/03/rethinking-that-roman-swiss-army-knife/


    • Ah! So they think it’s odd too. Thanks!



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