The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford exemplifies conversion of a heritage ‘temple museum’ into a contemporary ‘forum’ that enhances sharing dialogue—emphasising shared intercultural exchanges underlying today’s multicultural societies. A major extension in 2009 behind the aloof nineteenth century neoclassical façade introduced a new permanent exhibition—Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time. This discursive space de-compartmentalised existing collection areas to narrate past travel and trade links.
Principal access interventions :
- Introduced access ramps and double height glazed doors sought to counter psychological and physical barriers presented by the old partially sealed front door under a temple-like portico on a stepped podium (figs. 1).
- The rescripted exhibition’s dialogic metanarrative—Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time—aimed to broaden audiences as well as promote more tolerant multicultural societies.
- Spatial reconfiguration reinforced the dialogic metanarrative by encouraging exploration patterns that prompted associations across distinct cultures and periods.
- Displays and atmospheres were crafted to provoke visitors’ participation in dialogue by triggering personal intellectual and emotional responses to content.
- A new display ‘house style’ was developed to make objects more comprehensible for visitors, including accompanying maps, timelines and contextual narrative.
Since opening in Oxford’s Broad Street in 1683 the Ashmolean has undergone over three centuries of relocations and alterations. It moved to its current Beaumont Street address in the mid-nineteenth century (fig. 2). The museum forms a prominent element in this secondary civic centre situated on the edge of the city’s monumental core.
Recognised as the world’s first purpose-designed university museum, the Ashmolean took the controversial step of opening its doors to the general public in 1683. This dual ‘town and gown’ character remains evident today. The latest transformation of its current site aimed to enhance the Ashmolean’s effectiveness as both a museum to welcome wider communities and a teaching institution of the University of Oxford.
Find out more :
- The Ashmolean Museum’s website (new tab)
- The architect’s website (new tab)
- The exhibition designer’s website (new tab)
This case study is one of a three part series exploring inclusive design responses to a common dilemma in heritage museum buildings:
How to bring stories to life in museums’ heritage spaces to engage today’s diverse audiences?
The study extends inclusive design thinking to embrace three nuanced interpretations of social inclusion drawn from the museum world. The case studies of three venerable cultural institutions’ efforts to reinvent themselves demonstrate these aspirations:
- Showing Fair Representation at the Navigation Pavilion (new tab)
- Sharing Dialogue at the Ashmolean Museum (this case study)
- Shaping Society at La Casa Encendida (new tab)
Together they reveal an inclusive symbiosis between storytelling and design strategies. Simply put, storytelling held broad human appeal while designers made stories more comprehensible and meaningful for diverse audiences.
The research portrays the Museum as Storyteller, highlighting socially inclusive opportunities of rescripting museums’ heritage spaces as compelling vehicles for narrative to rival other popular storytelling media forms.
Authors of the article:
Michelle Moore · School of Architecture · The University of Queensland
This case study is distilled from, and includes extracts of, Moore’s PhD thesis—The Museum as Storyteller: Designing socially inclusive narrative environments. Publication details of the thesis with bibliography will soon be available at the following link (new tab)
Heritage significance and attractiveness
The Ashmolean Museum’s heritage significance is manifold:
- Broadly, it is an integral feature of Oxford’s historical streetscape
- Specifically, the neoclassical façade and illustrative interior are regarded as a consummate work of nineteenth century British architect Charles Robert Cockerell
- Both the institution and collections are internationally significant for their continuity stretching from early seventeenth century foundations to the present day
Today, the Ashmolean’s appeal reflects in the following distinctions and reactions:
- The original building is heritage listed by the national and local governments, designated respectively as: a Grade-I protected building of exceptional interest (since 1954); and part of the Central (City and University) Conservation Area
- The new extension’s shortlisting for the 2010 RIBA Stirling Prize proved peer recognition and the public vote overwhelmingly favoured the Ashmolean
- Visitor numbers rose from 300 000 to up to a million visitors a year and surveys bespoke progress with schools and families in Oxford’s deprived neighbourhoods
The Ashmolean’s old and new building elements present a built paradox that embodies the museum’s equally incongruous social context. On one hand, it is a teaching facility of the oldest university of the English speaking world and one of its most eminent. On the other hand, it is situated in a city where now some of the UK’s most ethnically diverse and socio-economically divided communities reside. For the project team, inclusive design challenges arose from the front door to the displays:
- Firstly, Cockerell’s ‘temple museum’, designed to bestow sacred status upon the secular knowledge it contained, was daunting for communities and gave the impression that the museum was just for the university
- Secondly, the old collections had to be re-presented in a new way that would cut across Oxford’s different cultures and engage unequally advantaged groups
The team’s first priority was engaging Oxford’s wider communities but they later had to re-assess university scholars’ use of the museum which had dwindled. It wasn’t a simple case of ‘town versus gown’; the museum had to serve both audiences.
Interviews brought to light how the project team took an integrated approach to deploying storytelling and design strategies aimed at greater social inclusion.
The Museum Director
Director Dr Christopher Brown observed that the old display’s segregation into five departments—Western Art, Eastern Art, Antiquities, the Coin Room and Cast Gallery —without any linking interpretation (fig. 3), presented double difficulties:
- Exhibits were not understandable or engaging for non-specialist audiences
- Overall, they emphasised cultural differences rather than contact and exchange
The idea that civilizations evolve by contact and exchange became the new guiding principle, presenting opportunity to weave narratives through collections that Brown imagined would be “helpful and intriguing” and “make more sense” for most visitors.
Keeper of Antiquities Dr Susan Walker described an early proposal by a group of keepers (chief curators of collection areas). Similar to a nineteenth century Evolutionary Progress narrative, they organised the old collections chronologically as if the building were an archaeological dig, with older objects at the lower level and more recent objects at the top. The director, supported by project manager Henry Kim and the funding authority, swiftly intervened, insisting that they find ‘a new way’.
Lengthy discussions ensued, led by the keepers and involving various stakeholders, from which eventually emerged the overarching display metanarrative Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time, explained as follows:
The approach is based on the idea that civilisations that have shaped our modern societies developed as part of an interrelated world culture, rather than in isolation. Every object has a story to tell, and these are uncovered through comparisons and connections, tracing the journey of ideas and influences through the centuries and across continents.
This dialogic metanarrative’s underlying aims were two-fold:
- To make displays relevant and comprehensible for non-specialist audiences
- To educate people about different cultures in order to promote tolerant societies
To encourage visitors across the museum’s threshold the architects fitted a new double-height glazed front door; added non-museological brief elements (such as the café and shop) and, critically, worked to create an unexpectedly welcoming interior.
Moreover, project architect Stuart Cade saw narrative as a doorway into the museum’s collections, “another way in”. Their three dimensional circulation strategy (figs. 4-7) broke with convention in the way it organised and ‘punctuated’ narratives:
- Broadly, the strategy avoided channelling visitors and instead de-structured routes making it possible to deviate, and drop in or out, yet still follow the metanarrative
- The localised planning approach aimed to enrich visitors’ experience of the smaller stories by modelling space, light and views to provoke surprise, relief or respite
The Exhibition Designer
Metaphor’s directors expressed nuanced views on socially inclusive storytelling. For architect Stephen Greenberg it was about expressing shared humanity; while for writer Rachel Morris it had to do with reinforcing self-identities. Both principles influenced Metaphor’s development of Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time that entailed:
- Conceiving the visit as A Journey Round the World via a self-directed itinerary (fig. 4)
- Proposing modifications to the architectural design to emphasise spatial links and permeability (fig. 8) that in turn accentuated the connectivity of human history
- Imposing a narrative hierarchy to organise and relate stories at different scales
- Developing a house style ‘kit’ with maps, timelines and contextual narrative (fig.9)
- Introducing colour to the ‘white architecture’ to create atmospheres, evoke cultural meanings and activate objects’ emotional power (fig.9)
Of the end result, Morris observed,
The strong sense that you’re taking a physical journey perfectly dovetails with the exhibition’s thematic journeys of people, objects or ideas. In that way space and story work together.
The old Ashmolean Museum
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Cockerell’s temple-like portico and galleries remained sacrosanct (fig. 1). However, by 2003, twenty different development phases behind them were slated for demolition (fig. 2) along with the time-worn permanent exhibition that for many visitors was tiring and incomprehensible (fig. 3).
The Ashmolean Museum transformed
The following ‘walk-through’ the transformed Ashmolean Museum highlights how its spatial reconfiguration reinforced the new exhibition’s dialogic metanarrative—Crossing Cultures Crossing Time. This narrative strategy’s socially inclusive aims were twofold: to engage wider audiences and promote tolerant societies.
Choices of routes—fostering intercultural associations
Today, behind Cockerell’s steadfast street scene, a traditional evolutionary sequence is still traceable in the thirty-nine new chronologically ordered galleries, beginning with the ground floor’s Ancient World and culminating in European Art from 1800 on the uppermost level (fig. 4). However, the museum’s spatial reconfiguration and exhibition design work together to rupture the evolutionary reading. Visitors aren’t obliged to follow a predetermined itinerary but are regularly presented with choices of routes. These optional ‘journeys’ provoke many unexpected associations across different cultures and periods. The message conveyed is that world civilizations didn’t rise in isolation but instead evolved through intercultural contact and exchange.
3D circulation diagram—reinforcing the dialogic metanarrative
The architectural spatial strategy is simple in plan while complex in section. It hinges on a non-linear, three-dimensional circulation diagram.
Considering first the modest plan diagram, the architects extended the rationale of three ground floor horizontal circulation axes set up by Cockerell, adding a fourth behind. The four axes form a square visitor flow pattern passing through galleries of the old and new buildings, binding them together (fig. 5). This square’s corners mark four principle crossroads, the first encountered at the main entrance.
The building’s dramatic sectional diagram is most apparent along the new rear fourth axis running from side to side (east-west) connecting a row of three new atria. Critically, the intricate arrangement of single and double height galleries, stairs, lifts and footbridges around and through the atria facilitates the ease with which visitors may move between, or see into, other galleries on different levels (fig. 6). Effectively, the visitors’ own movement and viewing patterns continually reinforce the display’s dialogic metanarrative Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time.
Main atrium—orienting and encouraging visitors’ exploration
The main atrium works as an orientation space towards which visitors naturally gravitate, being strategically located, flooded with natural light from overhead skylights and filled with the lively sounds of footsteps and voices (fig. 7 and general view above). Stepped-back stair flights and carefully positioned openings mean visitors circulating around and through it gain changing panoptic vistas of multiple galleries on different floor levels. Visitors can move easily between galleries while seeing further into others, gaining information about future possible route options. The overall effect encourages continuous exploration in a looping pattern with few dead-ends.
A journey round the world—discovering objects’ plural meanings for different cultures
The exhibition designers developed distinct exploratory routes through the atria and galleries to make each visit a journey round the world. Effectively visitors, objects and stories talk to each other across a space (general view above). In orientation galleries visible around the main atrium, visitors encounter en route special connector pieces highlighting cross-influences which occurred through past travel and trade. Furthermore, double-sided display cases set within dividing walls allow their exhibits to be viewed from two or more galleries (fig. 8). They also work as windows between galleries, juxtaposing their contents. By generating alternative ways to encounter and associate exhibits, the integrated design invites discovery of objects’ ‘polysemia’, or plural meanings for different cultures. Large maps, timelines and contextual narrative enhance intellectual connections while colour creates atmospheric effects to activate objects’ emotional power (fig. 9).
- Client: The University of Oxford
- Architect: Rick Mather Architects
- Exhibition design: Metaphor
Founded as a cabinet of curiosities and then reorganised along geographic and period boundaries, by the time Dr Christopher Brown assumed directorship in 1998 the antiquated permanent exhibition to him appeared “organised along the principle of an attic in which you go up and stumble across things”. Perceiving the effect for many visitors was bewildering and wearisome, Brown instigated the idea to transform the museum and redisplay the permanent collections for wider audience appeal.
Heritage, planning and funding authorities influenced design directions that began taking shape in 2003. Heritage and planning stipulated the existing Cockerell building be preserved and the new extension concealed from street view. The Heritage Lottery Fund made clear that funds would only be forthcoming if the project embraced their remit of greater access and inclusion. These twin demands channelled the project team’s focus into creating an interiorized and inclusive narrative environment.
In 2009, a decade on from Brown’s early talks, the new double height glass doors fitted beneath Cockerell’s enduring ‘temple’ portico opened, welcoming new and old audiences to enter and explore the transformed exhibition setting.
Case study interviews emphasised that during the design process all were given opportunity to have their say and be heard. Joining the museum director and the project team, input was sought from the board members, keepers, university experts, museum visitors and Oxford’s wider communities. This consultative process led to a high degree of consistency and satisfaction with the completed project.
The Ashmolean Museum case study demonstrates how rescripting a heritage museum building into a contemporary discursive space for sharing dialogue demands inclusive design solutions that are as integrated as they are innovative. Crucially, early introduction of the dialogic metanarrative—Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time—compelled project participants themselves to enter into a spirit of “contact and exchange”. Their experience holds lessons for future projects.
Getting visitors across the threshold
Surveys revealed that the ramps and glazed doors did little to temper the intimidating effect of Cockerell’s ‘temple museum’ for either the ‘town’ or ‘gown’ communities. Additional marketing followed conveying all were welcome; and lecturer-curators were employed to help teachers to teach using the collections. Once over the threshold, the surveys showed, the visit experience usually exceeded people’s expectations.
From monologic to dialogic storytelling
The display concept progressed from a monologic nineteenth century Evolutionary Progress narrative to the dialogic twenty-first century metanarrative Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time. The new dialogic narrative was believed to offer socially inclusive advantages: helping more visitors to understand and engage with the collections; encouraging learning about connections between one’s own and other cultures; and celebrating multiculturalism while promoting tolerance.
An undercurrent of participatory shared dialogue
The individual project participants’ stated definitions of social inclusion varied widely. However, participatory shared dialogue was intrinsic to their work practices.
- Firstly, the guiding metanarrative—Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time—was effectively a loose conversation topic that drew everyone in.
- Secondly, all stakeholders—within the museum, the university and the communities— had chances to speak and be listened to.
- Thirdly, visitors were conceived as active participants in the display dialogue which hinged upon their physical exploration and intellectual and emotional responses.
Intense interdisciplinary debate
Brown pointed out that Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time wasn’t always about peaceful contact and exchange. Neither was the process of materialising it. Interviews revealed that all players were thrust into complex and at times difficult relationships.
This case study highlights the controversial nature of stories, and how they are told. It means that those bold enough to enter the interdisciplinary debates must be prepared to encounter creative collaboration, a battle for creative control, or a generous measure of both.
GENERAL NOTE: This case study is distilled from a chapter in the author’s PhD thesis whose ideas were developed in a previously published book chapter. Respective references are as follows:
Moore, Michelle. 2019. “Interpretation B—Case Study: Designing Discursive Space at the Ashmolean Museum.” In The Museum as Storyteller: Designing socially inclusive narrative environments, 131-188. Brisbane: School of Architecture, The University of Queensland.
Moore, Michelle. 2013. “Tales of Migration and Mobility: Storytelling through Design.” In “Placing” Europe in the Museum: People(s), Places, Identities, ed Christopher Whitehead, Rhiannon Mason, Susannah Eckersley and Katherine Lloyd. Milan: Politecnico di Milano, Dipartimento di Progettazione dell’Architettura. https://eprint.ncl.ac.uk/196290 (accessed 31 August 2018).
i ‘Access Challenges’ is based on analyses of transcripts of the author’s interviews with the project team detailed in notes ii-v.
ii ‘The Museum Director’ discussion is drawn from transcripts of the author’s interview with Dr Christopher Brown held in Oxford on 18th September, 2014.
iii ‘The Keeper’ discussion is drawn from transcripts of the author’s interview with Dr Susan Walker held in Oxford on 19th September, 2014.
iv ‘The Architect’ discussion is drawn from transcripts of the author’s interview with architect Stuart Cade in London on 25th September, 2014.
v ‘The Exhibition Designer’ discussion is drawn from transcripts of the author’s joint interview with Stephen Greenberg and Rachel Morris held in London on 26th September, 2014.
vi ‘Processes’ is based on analyses of transcripts of the author’s interviews with the project team detailed in notes ii-v.
GENERAL NOTE: The researcher has colour-rendered the drawings and added/deleted annotations in order to highlight issues relevant to the research.
Banner [Ashmolean Museum post-transformation: view of visitors gathering around the new main atrium], 2009, colour photograph, in Stephen Greenberg, A Journey Round the World: Designing the New Ashmolean, (Oxford: Sir David Piper Lecture, 2010), slide 29, provided for use in this research by Metaphor, London, 16 July 2012.
Fig. 1 Sealand Aerial Photography, [Ashmolean Museum pre-transformation: aerial view of the museum building and surrounds in Oxford illustrating the conservation and demolition plan for transformation], 2003, aerial colour photograph, in Rick Mather Architects, The Ashmolean Museum Conservation Plan, (London: Rick Mather Architects, 2003), 5, fig. 2.3, provided for use in this research by MICA Architects, London, 17 May 2018.
Rick Mather Architects, [Ashmolean Museum pre-transformation: site plan in Oxford illustrating the conservation and demolition plan for transformation], 2003, technical drawing, in Rick Mather Architects, The Ashmolean Museum Conservation Plan, (London: Rick Mather Architects, 2003), 6, fig. 2.5, provided for use in this research by MICA Architects, London, 17 May 2018.
Fig. 2 [Ashmolean Museum pre-transformation: view of the forecourt and main entrance], 2003, colour photograph, Rick Mather Architects, London, accessed 19 August 2018, www.rickmather.com/project/category/ashmolean_museum .
Fig. 3 Rick Mather Architects, [Ashmolean Museum pre-transformation: Old Ground Floor Plan showing some of the old exhibition’s design issues], 2003, technical drawing, in Rick Mather Architects, The Ashmolean Museum Conservation Plan, (London: Rick Mather Architects, 2003), 8, fig. 2.11, provided for use in this research by MICA Architects, London, 17 May 2018.
Fig. 4 Rick Mather Architects, [Ashmolean Museum: New Sections for the museum’s transformation], 2009, technical drawing, provided for use in this research by MICA Architects, London, 17 May 2018.
Metaphor, [Ashmolean Museum: New Ground Floor Exhibition Design Layout for the museum’s transformation], 2009, technical drawing, in Stephen Greenberg, A Journey Round the World: Designing the New Ashmolean, (Oxford: Sir David Piper Lecture, 2010), slide 22, provided for use in this research by Metaphor, London, 16 July 2012.
Fig. 5 Rick Mather Architects, [Ashmolean Museum: New Ground Floor Plan for the museum’s transformation], 2009, technical drawing, provided for use in this research by MICA Architects, London, 17 May 2018.
Fig. 6 Rick Mather Architects, [Ashmolean Museum: one of the architects’ working models for the museum’s transformation], 2003, architectural model, Rick Mather Architects, London, accessed 19 August 2018, www.rickmather.com/project/category/ashmolean_museum .
Fig. 7 [Ashmolean Museum post-transformation: view of the new main atrium and stair], 2009, colour photograph, Rick Mather Architects, London, accessed 19 August 2018, www.rickmather.com/project/category/ashmolean_museum.
Fig. 8 [Ashmolean Museum post-transformation: view through one of the new double-sided in-wall display cases], 2009, colour photograph, in Stephen Greenberg, A Journey Round the World: Designing the New Ashmolean, (Oxford: Sir David Piper Lecture, 2010), slide 29, provided for use in this research by Metaphor, London, 16 July 2012.
Fig. 9 Michelle Moore, [Ashmolean Museum post-transformation: an example of the new display ‘house style’], 2014, colour photograph, the researcher’s data collection, The University of Queensland, Brisbane.