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