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?