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. 2, 5 and 9, Section A-A).
- The rescripted dialogic exhibition narrative—Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time—aimed to broaden audiences as well as promote more tolerant multicultural societies.
- Spatial reconfiguration reinforced the dialogic narrative by encouraging exploration patterns that prompted associations across distinct cultures and periods (fig. 9).
- 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 (fig. 14).
Since opening in Oxford’s Broad Street in 1683 (fig. 12) 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. 13). The museum forms a prominent element in this secondary civic centre situated on the edge of the city’s monumental core (figs. 14 and 15).
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 (fig. 12). 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 central conservation area. More specifically, the building’s neoclassical façade and illustrative interior are regarded as a consummate work of eminent nineteenth century British architect Charles Robert Cockerell. Finally, both the institution and collections are internationally significant for their continuity stretching from early seventeenth century foundations to the present day.
This walk-through the transformed Ashmolean Museum highlights how the spatial and exhibition designs work together to reinforce a dialogic narrative whose socially inclusive aims were twofold: to engage wider audiences and promote tolerance.
Choices of routes—fostering intercultural associations
Approached from Beaumont Street the Ashmolean appears as the mid-nineteenth century neoclassical building designed by English architect Charles Robert Cockerell. Today, behind this steadfast street scene, an 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. However, the museum’s spatial configuration 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. As they navigate a network of crossroads, stairs, lifts and footbridges, the intellectual bridges of the display’s metanarrative Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time are reinforced as many unexpected associations across different cultures and periods become possible (fig. 18). The message conveyed is that world civilizations didn’t rise in isolation but instead evolved through intercultural contact and exchange.
3D circulation diagram—interconnecting multiple galleries
Rick Mather Architect’s 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, Mather 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. 20). 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 (fig. 20). The outer ‘main’ and ‘west’ atria are located at crossroads and additionally house stairs with nearby lifts linking all five gallery levels. The ‘middle’ atrium, a double height space with no stair or lift, is surrounded by horizontal footbridges connecting galleries on either side of it on upper floors. Critically, this intricate arrangement of voids, stairs, lifts and bridges facilitates the ease with which visitors may move between, or see into, other galleries on different levels.
Main atrium—orienting and encouraging visitors’ exploration
The main atrium (fig. 21) 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. 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
Metaphor 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. They also work as windows between galleries, juxtaposing their contents (fig. 24). By generating alternative ways to encounter and associate exhibits, the integrated design builds upon objects’ “inspirational, magical and emotional power” and invites discovery of their ‘polysemia’, or plural meanings for different cultures.
Watch this inclusive space
If you liked this taster of The Museum as Storyteller, check back in early 2020 for more on the Ashmolean Museum project challenges, players and processes and the case study’s conclusions.