The Ashmolean Ark

John Tradescant the Elder was gardener to Charles I. Tradescant (and son, the Younger) travelled extensively to find new plant species and collected ‘rarities and oddities’, including utensils, household stuff, birds, beasts and instruments of war. He brought all of these together into what is now know as a museum, but back then was described as closet of rarities, or a Cabinet of Curiosities, and popularly known in Germany as a Kunstkabinett (Kunst essentially meaning art). These collections of possibly notable objects included natural history (sometimes faked, read on), geology (rocks and minerals), archaeology relics and artworks.
Elias Ashmole, Lawyer and antiquarian, helped Tradescant prepare a catalogue in 1656 and in 1677 he drew up agreement to give the collection to Oxford University and the museum, the Old Ashmolean, is named after him, not Tradescent. The first museum open to the public started life on Broad Street in 1683 by the Duke of York (James II).
A new museum was built in 1835 on Beaumont street, designed by Charles Cockerell, a friend of the British Museum architect Robert Smirke. Both buildings follow the Greek revival with their ionic columns and statues.
If this was truly the first public museum, it provided the visitor with something of an eclectic collection of objects, described as Tradescant’s Ark. It included a dodo, mermaid’s hand, a dragon’s egg, two feathers of a phoenix tail a piece of the true cross. None of which I imagine had any providence, something to which all modern museums and art galleries require – proof of origin and authenticity. The dodo being so destroyed by moths, only its head and claw survived. Lessons in conservation were also needed in these early museums.

The museum has moved on from being a Kunstkabinett, which is probably a good thing, because some of its keepers weren’t very good at curating. One keeper, a professor, managed to lose half the collection and turned part of the building into examination rooms. I suppose this is the problem of putting the university vice-chancellor in charge. Further donations recovered the museum’s standing, and these days, you’ll find Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, Turner, Stradivarius, Picasso, Constable, Reubens, Titian, van Dyck, pre-Raphaelites, clothes worn by Lawrence of Arabia, Oliver Cromwell’s death mask, the lantern used by Guy Fawkes in the Gunpowder Plot… so perhaps still a little eclectic, like the dodo.

Ashmolean Museum began a trend with its inception, one that spread on, right up to relatively recent times, and you can find other Cabinets of Curiosities at Snows Hill House and Wallington Manor.

What curiosities could you put in your cabinet?



  1. Thank you very much for telling us the history of this much loved museum in Oxford.
    All the best. Happy Easter
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy Easter to you too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A fine start to the month! I’m thinking of camping in the Cotswolds later this year, and Snows Hill House will go on my visit list! As my father Denis Hillman was a renowned miniaturist a piece of his Louis XI furniture takes pride of place in my cabinet!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been to Snows Hill a couple of times and it’s a remarkable place. I will look up your father, very intrigued!
      Thanks for stopping by.


  3. This is fascinating, hard to imagine a time when such a thing as a public museum didn’t exist, but I suppose they had to start somewhere!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Setting up a museum seems to be more complicated than I thought!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Absolutely fascinating.
    I know very little of the history of museums, but I know the early ones were very different from what we consider a museum today.
    I can’t wait to learn more!

    The Old Shelter – The Great War

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m hoping I can touch on lots of different kinds of museums too!


  5. Wendy Janes · · Reply

    Great start to the series. Thanks. Looking forward to learning more throughout this month.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I hope I can keep up with the writing.


  6. Curiosity Cabinet. I love that phrase for museum. You never know what you will find and love!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think we should all have a small curiosity cabinet! Thanks for stopping by.


  7. It sounds like Philadelphia’s creepy Mütter Museum and St. Petersburg’s Kunstkamera. I love bizarre oddities and medical curiosities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the dragon’s eggs, and all the other odds and ends, that these days would have been put in the back of a closet!


  8. I love the concept of cabinets of curiosity. I also did some research on Tradescant and Ashmole for a work in progress (that may end up being abandoned, alas). Thanks for sharing this!
    Black and White: A for Atlantis

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My computer is cluttered with abandoned works. You probably found out much more than I did with my brief excursion in to the past.


  9. I think we should go back to calling museums Cabinet of Curiosities although keep all the critical curating roles in place as well as require proof of origin and authenticity. Just the name change. Weekends In Maine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of the museums I’m featuring should definitely be called cabinets of curiosity!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I visited the Ashmolean Museum while traveling in England in 2004. Apart from coming very close to falling down a marble staircase, I really enjoyed the museum.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you didn’t hurt yourself. One of my future posts does feature an accident on a staircase that was very costly for the museum.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had near accidents in three different British Museums. It’s kind of a running gag among my traveling companions.


  11. I very much liked reading this origin story. A dragon’s egg indeed!


  12. What a wondeful post. And how frustrating to be on the other side of the world and not go and look at these cabinets of curiosities. I guess we have a cabinet of curiosities. It is my grandmother’s display cabinet. Mostly full of glassware but down the bottom is an eclectic mix of old dolls from my youth and trinkets that my husband and I have bought over the years and things made by the kids.


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