The Ashmolean Museum was named after its founder Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) and opened in 1683. It is widely recognised as being the first modern museum.
Elias Ashmole was a royalist, lawyer, antiquarian, scholar, and collector who gave his collections to the University of Oxford in 1677. A condition of his gift was that an institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge should be built to house the collections. The original Ashmolean Museum was constructed near the Bodleian Library. It combined the functions of a repository for rare materials with a centre for research and learning, and was a model scientific institution for the time.
In our Ashmolean Story Gallery you can discover more about Elias Ashmole and his new museum. You can also find out about his collections, which included the Tradescant family’s ‘Rarities’.
Elias Ashmole’s vision was for his museum to be a centre of practical research and learning based on the collections, with the aim of advancing knowledge of the natural world. As at the Royal Society of London (established 1660) the focus was on the ‘new’ scientific method and inductive reasoning advocated by the natural philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626).
Ashmole specified that the museum was to be housed in a building designed to promote scientific practice. On the first floor was a repository for the collections, with a lecture theatre for ‘natural history’ on the ground floor. The basement contained a state-of-the-art chemical laboratory and anatomy room. Ashmole also provided statutes of governance to guide the museum in achieving its aims.
Research on the collections is still one of the major activities in the museum.
THE TRADESCANT COLLECTION AND ELIAS ASHMOLE
The Tradescant family displayed their famous collection of natural and artificial rarities at their home in Lambeth, south London. Unusually for the time, the curious could pay a fee to inspect the collection and in 1634 a visitor described it as a place ‘where a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more curiosities than hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell’.
John Tradescant the younger was helped by Elias Ashmole to produce a catalogue of the collection in 1656. Tradescant gifted the collection to Ashmole, who later presented it to University of Oxford along with his own collection to form the Ashmolean Museum. Objects may have been displayed at the early Ashmolean in a similar arrangement to the Tradescant catalogue.