Monday, November 02, 2009

Ashmolean Museum

Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England by Rick Mather Architects

Photographs are copyright Richard Bryant/ Arcaid.

In 1683 the Ashmolean Museum opened its private collection to the public, making it one of the first modern-day museums, if not the first. Housing a collection presented to the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole, the "contents were universal in scope, with man-made and natural specimens from every corner of the known world." An 1845 building by Charles Cockerell obviously could not keep up with the thousands of acquisitions acquired annually, so the museum has undergone an expansion by Rick Mather Architects with expiation displays by Metaphor, opening November 7th.

The model and floor plans illustrate how Mather's extension basically doubles the old museum's square footage. A press release indicates the design "comprises 39 new galleries, including 4 temporary exhibition galleries, a new education center, state-of-the-art conservation studios, and Oxford's first rooftop restaurant. In the Cockerell Building, the newly refurbished galleries of Western Art will reopen after 10 months of closure." The released photos make it clear the focus is internal, specifically on a central light well and stair in the expansion.

The vertical void and the cascading stair overlooking it give visitors a strong point of orientation for the large museum. Further, galleries have glimpses of this space, to bring in indirect natural light, while also referencing the expansion's center or heart. The intersection of old and new is also enlivened by spaces that literally bridge the temporal realms. Mather's design is dynamic yet minimal, white plaster and glass bathed in sunlight, a counterpoint to the classicism and heaviness of Cockerell's building.

In its expansion the museum asked, "How best can beautiful objects be displayed, to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of them? How can modern architecture and design help put our past into a fresh perspective, for the greatest number of people?" Working with Metaphor, a Crossing Cultures Crossing Time strategy developed, acknowledging the interrelationship of world cultures, not their supposed isolation. The architecture, not just the exhibition design, seems to reinforce this approach, in the way the galleries relate to each other with open vistas of overlapping times and cultures.