The Ashmolean was a bit of a surprise for me on the first trip our class made to Oxford. I had seen the name on enough books and pamphlets and catalogues when I worked in the art library to remember it but I’d never found out where it was. The same thing has happened to me before in Texas when I saw the Amon Carter and it turned out to have my all time favorite Grant Wood painting in its collections, the Ashmolean proved to have similar important and rather exciting objects in its collection.
The main exhibition spaces on the ground floor were made up of Roman art and chunks of friezes and statues collected by a fellow named Arundel, for me it was another reminder of how many things the British stole while on their whirlwind conquering and colonizing tours, and that feeling continued to appear while I looked through the Egyptian collections. The museum has a ridiculously impressive collection of pendants, there were hundreds of them in many shapes of gods and goddesses but also forms that reminded me of milagros from Mexico, hands and feet and eyes, but all in blue stones. The Egyptian collection was also headed off by a sampling of objects from pre-Dynastic Egypt aka prehistoric artifacts, such as flakes and bifaces and burial objects, someone’s hair, and statues that pre-date the ideas of the Egyptian gods and goddesses most people are familiar with; these were most interesting for me as I’m very interested in prehistory and most of what I’ve ever heard about Egypt is all from Dynastic periods.
Anyway, the part of the collection that I’m most happy I saw and that was very surprising involved an exhibit labeled ‘Treasures.’ Inside were a pottery shard with a painting of a Greek or Etruscan boy on it that I know is on the cover of a book I shelved in the art library and Ghandaran and Gupta period Buddhist art (it’s always nice to look at the halo behind a Buddha sculpture, guess which period it’s from and be right). There were two objects that were particularly amusing to me though, the lantern taken from Guy Fawkes when he was arrested for trying to burn down Parliament, it wasn’t very imposing considering it nearly destroyed a government, and Powhatan’s mantle which of course is an invaluable American historical artifact, I was kind of wondering how it ended up in England as I don’t recall Powhatan being particularly fond of the English, I mean, Pocahontas didn’t really have that great of an argument for hanging with John Smith and he left her anyway, she probably should have listened to Powhatan.
Many parts of the collection featuring paintings weren’t available to see because of the Ashmolean’s renovations, which gave me the impression that I was looking at Oxford’s version of the Victoria and Albert Museum as a lot of the collection was furniture, instruments, silver, and other objects associated more so with design than fine art.