Opened in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology is the world’s first university museum and it is regarded as Britain’s finest museum outside London.
Its treasures include Egyptian mummies, sketches by Michelangelo and paintings by Da Vinci, Manet, Monet, Matisse and Van Gogh.
What to see at the Ashmolean Museum
The Ashmolean Museum has five floors of gallery space. The museum’s exhibits are organised chronologically with the oldest artefacts on the lower ground and ground floors and more recent art and artefacts on the higher levels.
Lower ground floor
The lower ground floor has the following galleries:
- The Ashmolean Story gallery, which tells the story of the Ashmolean Museum, its founder Elias Ashmole and his collection that served as the foundation of the museum’s collections.
- The Conservation galleries, consisting of two galleries that address museum conservation
- The Textile gallery with displays of printed textiles and the largest collection of medieval Islamic embroideries
- The Reading and Writing gallery, which shows how reading and writing has evolved over thousands of years
- The Money gallery that depicts the history of money and includes coins from the museum’s large collection
The ground floor has a focus on China, ancient Egypt and classical antiquity with galleries that include:
- China to AD 800, which chronicles over 3000 years of Chinese history and culture. This gallery includes a fascinating exhibit about the history of Chinese writing from the 15th century BC to the present day.
- The Chinese Paintings gallery, the only museum gallery in Britain devoted to Chinese painting.
- India to AD 60, which shows us the development of Indian art and includes artefacts from the Indus Valley.
- Rome, focusing on life in the Roman empire from 400 BC to AD 300.
- The Cast gallery, one of Britain’s largest collections of casts taken from throughout the ancient world.
- Italy Before Rome, which explores civilisation in Italy prior to the rise of the Roman empire.
- The Greece gallery, which focuses on life in Greece and the Greek empire between 750 and 500 BC.
- The European Prehistory gallery, focusing on prehistoric European culture.
- The Ancient Cyprus gallery, which explores 5000 years of history in Ancient Cyprus from around 5000 BC to AD 200.
- The Ancient Near East gallery, showing the development of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires. One of the highlights is a display of carved ivory from the palace of Nimrud, dating from 900 to 600 BC.
- The Aegean World gallery, which depicts the Bronze Age in the Aegean Sea including artefacts from Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece.
- The Greek and Roman Sculpture gallery, which consists of a large portion of Britain’s earliest major collection of Classical antiquities.
- The Egypt and its Origins galleries, which tells the story of life in the Nile Valley in Ancient Greece and Sudan.
- Ancient Egypt and Sudan, depicting life in Ancient Egypt and Sudan including the building projects of the Middle Kingdom kings.
- Life and Death in Ancient Egypt. Continuing the Egyptian theme, this gallery explains the beliefs and customs relating to death and the afterlife in ancient Egypt.
- The Amarna Revolution gallery, depicting palace life in ancient Egypt.
- Egypt in the Age of Empires, which shows the period from the end of Akhenaten’s reign to the Greek and Roman conquests of Egypt.
- Egypt Meets Greece and Rome, the last of the Egyptian galleries, which shows the history of Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death in 305 BC.
The museum’s first-floor galleries have a focus on post-classical history in Asia and the Mediterranean and include:
The Asian Crossroads Orientation gallery, which shows how knowledge, culture and religion spread throughout Asia along the Silk Road and other trade routes.
- The Eastern Asian Paintings gallery, which features themed displays drawing on the Ashmolean’s extensive collection of Asian art.
- The Mediterranean World gallery, which depicts the Mediterranean region after the division of the Roman empire.
- Islamic Middle East, which showcases applied art from the Middle East dating from the 600s to the 1800s.
- India from AD 600, which has displays of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sculpture and which illustrates the spread of both Buddhism and Hinduism from India to the far east.
- The Mughal India gallery, which has displays about the Mughal Emperors who ruled India after 1526.
- The small Medieval Cyprus gallery, which depicts the impact of the Crusades on Cyprus during the Middle Ages.
The second floor focuses on how the world changed due to European exploration in the late 15th century. It includes Asian and European art including art from the Renaissance period. Galleries on this floor include:
- The West meets East Orientation gallery, which provides an introduction to displays on the second floor, highlighting how Europe has been transformed by contact with the Americas and Asia in the late 15th century.
- Japan from 1850, which shows Japanese arts from the Meiji ere (1868–1912) when Japan was opened to Western influences.
- The Japan 1600–1850 gallery, which has displays of Japanese art from the Edo period (1600–1850) when Japan experienced a degree of prosperity while isolated from the West.
- China from AD 800, which has exhibits of Chinese art dating from the 9th century.
- The Music and Tapestry gallery, which features musical instruments donated to the museum in the 1930s and 1940s.
- The European Ceramics gallery, which chronicles five centuries of European ceramic production.
- England 400–1600, which features one of the world’s finest English archaeological collections.
- The Early Italian Art gallery, which highlights some of the leading examples of early Italian art.
- Italian Renaissance, which showcases the advances made by artists in Italy’s leading cities (particularly in Florence, Rome and Venice) during the Renaissance period.
- The spacious European Art gallery, which depicts the opulent art collections of wealthy English and Italian homes.
- Dutch Art, which shows how prosperity led to an increased demand for the arts in the Netherlands.
- The Baroque Art gallery, which highlights the Baroque style that became popular in Italy from the early 17th century.
- The German and Flemish Art gallery, which shows the influence that the Italian Renaissance had on art in Germany, Flanders and Spain.
- The Still-Life Paintings gallery, which showcases a collection of still-life paintings made by Dutch and Flemish artists during the 17th century.
- Britain and Italy, which highlights the trend of 18th-century British art collectors and how the demand for Italian art influenced British artists.
- The Landscape Oil Sketches gallery, which showcases the landscape oil paintings that were popular in the mid-18th century.
- Arts of the 18th Century, which has displays of artworks from the 120 years leading up to the Battle of Waterloo.
- The Silver gallery, which features one of the world’s finest collections of silverware.
- The Arts of the Renaissance gallery, which displays works from the collection of Charles Drury Edward Fortnum, an English art collector and historian who was a major benefactor of the University of Oxford.
The third floor of the Ashmolean Museum has a focus on art from the 19th century to the present day. Galleries on this floor include:
- Modern Art, which highlights the museum’s collection of modern art.
- Sickert and his Contemporaries, which focuses on the work of Walter Sickert (1860–1942).
- The Pissarro gallery, which displays artwork from the Ashmolean’s extensive collection of paintings by Camille Pissarro (1880–1903) alongside other noted Impressionists including Manet, Renoir and Van Gogh.
- The 19th-Century Art gallery, which illustrates the variety of artistic styles that developed during the 19th century.
- The Pre-Raphaelite gallery, which showcases a selection of the Ashmolean’s collection of Pre-Raphaelite art.
The museum’s third floor also features space for a programme of temporary exhibitions. While there is no charge to visit the museum’s permanent collection, most temporary exhibitions have an admission charge.
Hans Coper 100
This exhibition (17 May–26 September 2021) focuses on the work of Hans Coper (1920–81), who fled Germany in 1939 and established himself as a leading ceramic artist. Free.
Tokyo: Art & Photography
The Tokyo: Art & Photography exhibition (29 July 2021–3 January 2022) explores over 400 years of art in Tokyo, which charts the city’s rise from the early 1600s to its current role as a major international metropolis. £12.25–14.50.
Dante and the Invention of Celebrity
This exhibition (17 September 2021–9 January 2022) focuses on the legacy of Dante’s the Divine Comedy, which is credited as the first known publication to dwell on the concept of celebrity. The exhibition includes works by Botticelli, William Blake, Salvador Dalì and Tom Phillips RA. Free.
In Praise of Hands: Woodcuts by Naoko Matsubara
The Naoko Matsubara exhibition (25 September 2021–15 March 2022) features a collection of woodcuts taken from the donation of her works that she made in 2019. Free.
Visiting the Ashmolean Museum
The Ashmolean Museum is on Beaumont Street just north of Oxford city centre. It is only a couple of minutes’ walk into the heart of the city.
It is free to visit the museum’s permanent collection, although there is an admission fee to see temporary exhibitions. Visitors with a National Art Pass can visit temporary exhibitions for half price.
Free tours of the museum operate every day. Lunchtime tours run at 1.15pm every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Free tours of the museum’s highlights run at 11am every Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and free afternoon tours depart at 3pm every Wednesday and Thursday.
There is also a Behind the Scenes of the Cast Gallery tour that operates at 2pm on Thursdays and Saturdays. This tour is not wheelchair-accessible as it operates outside the museum’s publicly-accessible areas.
Most tours run for 45 minutes, except the highlights tours which last one hour.
There are several apps that let you get more out of your visit to the Ashmolean Museum and to Oxford in general. These include the Oxford Civil War Tour app and the Historic Musical Instruments of Oxford University app. There is also a Chinese-language app that helps you explore the museum and learn more about the exhibits in Chinese.
The Civil War app is a web-based, rather than downloadable, app so you simply click on the Oxford Civil War Tour for a guide around Oxford, including artefacts inside the Ashmolean Museum, highlighting points of interest relating to the 1642–1646 English Civil War.
All public areas of the museum are fully wheelchair-accessible and the museum can organise free touch tours and description for visually-impaired visitors.
There is a cafe on the lower ground floor plus a restaurant with a rooftop terrace on the fourth floor.
The Ashmolean is a large museum with a lot to see. While you can quickly see the museum’s highlights on a one-hour tour, most visitors find they can easily spend 2–3 hours exploring the museum.