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IT’S HARD not to think of the Ashmolean as a national asset, alongside the Tate and the British Museum. It's almost as big, it seems, with elements of its collections comparable, and it was Europe'sfirst public museum. But it is a university museum, and like all university museums it has laboured for decades as officially no more than part of a faculty, and a fairly minor part at that. Itstruggled to be anything more than a study collection — albeit a very exalted one — but all that is changing.
The change began with the switch in funding. Instead of being financed through the universityfrom the Higher Education Funding Council, it is now supported directly through the Arts and Humanities Research Board.
University museums are now regarding themselves differently. No longer are theythe threadbare scholars among history institutions: they are endowed with a new confidence and more of an eye to the public as well as the campus audience. The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge has a £12million extension opening this summer, Manchester Museum has had a £20 million makeover, and Newcastle University’s Great North Museum is in a £41 million cultural quarter.
The Ashmolean — which predatesthe British Museum by 70 years — is the paradigm of university museums, but under its director Christopher Brown it is planning a £46 million building programme, which will reorientate not only itsenormous collections but its whole outlook as well.
“People’s expectations of museums have become much more sophisticated. They will not tolerate the old-fashioned, uninformative, poorly lit, poorlymaintained displays we presently have,” Mr Brown says. “We have the opportunity to rethink the way we display the entire collection.”
The Ashmolean began as a “wonderful and incongruous juxtapositionof objects”, in the words of the Natural History Museum’s first director, William Flower. Part of the collection is from the 17th-century horticulturalist turned diplomat, John Tradescant, a...