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Exploring Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum and The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

16th January 2016

Museum visits are usually a part of the educational experience for schoolchildren everywhere from the very earliest stages of their school careers. And while museum visits are rarely a mandatory element of any of our Campus Oxford Summer or Gap Year programs, there are so many great museums in and around Oxford missing out on visiting at least one or two of them would be a real shame.

The Ashmolean Museum and The Oxford University Museum of Natural History are certainly two must sees. Once a single institution founded all the way back in the 17th century. Now two very separate entities each offers fascinating opportunities to explore both natural and man made living history from all over the world:

The Ashmolean Museum


Not only is the Ashmolean Museum one of the very best to be found anywhere in the world it can also lay claim to the tile of Britain’s oldest. Its beginnings were fairly humble though.

It began as a place for its founder, Elias Ashmore, to house the extensive and fascinating collection of natural history specimens he had been deeded by gardening pioneers John Tradescant and his son John Jr after it had grown to large for their Lambeth living room. When the museum first opened its doors on May 24, 1683 in a collection of buildings on Broad Street belonging to Oxford University it was composed of three separate parts; the collection, a chemistry laboratory, and lecture rooms. It was also open to the general public, something that rather irked many academics, but set a precedent for many other museums to open this way all over the world.


Over the centuries the museum has grown in leaps and bounds . So much so that in the mid Victorian period the growing collection was split into natural and man-made divisions, with the former being used to create the new Oxford Museum of Natural History while the Ashmolean rededicated itself to the display of archaeological artifacts, attracting an influx of new exhibits relating to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome and Anglo Saxon Britain and in 1894 it moved to its present location, on Beaumont Street.


Oxford University Museum of Natural History


Housed in the most extraordinary of Victorian Gothic buildings located on Parks Road the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which also shares the building with the Pitt River Museum, is considered to be one of the finest natural history museums to be found anywhere, boasting a huge collection that includes 250,000 examples of zoological specimens, 375,000 fossils and 30,000 mineral specimens.


Of all of the many exhibits perhaps the most famous of all is found within the Life Collections section. There you will find the last remaining traces of the long extinct dodo, which fell into the hands of John Tradescant at the time when the bird, which was native only to the island of Mauritius, was considered a collectible curiosity in Europe, which led of course to its destruction as a species.


All that survives now of Tradescant’s dodo is a mummified skull and one foot but from that the lifesize model displayed next to it was created, initially in the mid nineteenth century. How accurate that is is hard for modern experts to tell, as their long ago peers did like to romanticize and embellish a lot. Still, it’s a breathtaking – and slightly sad – exhibit to see up close.

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