Beyond Buildings


The Ashmolean Does Not Amaze

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I recently found myself in Oxford, England, and was reminded how reserved the place is. Having seen The Social Network recently, I realized that true wealth, power, and achievement pretends to be just elegant and self-assured. The rest of us have to try to perform and amaze. The new Ashmolean Museum is a case of reserved judgment and poise, though in a way that raises questions about that reserve.

Now, modesty is the new fashion in architecture, and especially in museum architecture. It is supposed to be a good thing, and of course, so it is. Except, that is, when it is false modesty: intricate and expensive attempts to make the architecture supposedly go away, but in reality a way for an architect to strut his stuff and the museum to show off how much money it spent. “Give me enough money, and I will give you a beautiful museum,” Taniguchi is supposed to have said to the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s Board; “Give me more money, and I will make it go away.” They gave him more than enough.

Rick Mather seems to have had a goodly amount of resources to work with in the redesign of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England (a little over $100 million), through, truth be told, he was faced with a difficult task. He had to replace a group of industrial sheds in the courtyard of a beloved 1845 neo-classical building, which is “listed,” or protected, and find a way to make the astonishingly large collections of this, the oldest university museum, more accessible. Working with exhibition designers Metaphor and a museum director, Christopher Brown, who wanted to open things up, Mather did what is by now the standard thing in museum renovations: he created a central atrium with a grand staircase connecting all the floors.


Photo by Richard Bryant/Arcaid, courtesy The Guardian.


As such spaces go, it is a seemingly modest one. Rising up four floors, it is thin, skylit, and without any apparent structural gymnastics, though with several bridges that cross over and must have required some structural puzzling. The focal point, if you could call it that, for the space is a slow curve in the Portland stone staircase as it rises. The space does not seem to be large enough to give the kind of serious parties that have turned the hearts of most museums into drunken memories after the bar mitzvah, wedding, or takeover celebration.


Photo by Richard Bryant/Arcaid, courtesy The Guardian.


Moreover, director Brown has done the right thing: he has turned an encyclopedic museum without many great true masterpieces, but thousands of exquisite and important artifacts, into a place of study. Organized around the notion of crossing cultures and the display of as many artifacts as possible, the galleries around the atrium are not so much rooms as they are areas that bathe you in vessels, shards, statues, coins, and textiles, as well as both natural and humanmade light, making you feel as if you have entered into the heart of the British Empire’s treasure chest. I was there on a grey, winter Sunday afternoon, and the (free) place was crawling with families doing what you would want a great university museum to let them do, which is to learn. Even better, the galleries in the original building appeared largely untouched, though backed by all the latest technology, so that you could wander past Pre-Raphaelites and Gainsboroughs as the wood floors creaked underneath your heels.

So why I feel so dissatisfied? I think it was the sameness that got to me. As every artifact appeared as important as the next, and every space flowed into each other, and every vantage point allowed you glimpses of what you had just visited or were about to see, it seemed to me that the whole experience just blended into a wash of white walls, spotlit pots, and large-type labels where everything was in the passive voice (“regarded as the most important artist,” “it is seen to be,” “it has been assumed that...”). I felt as if I was in the politically correct world of culture made into a building.


Photo by Richard Bryant/Arcaid, courtesy The Guardian.


This is a larger problem of what used to be our art palaces. They have turned into mechanisms for teaching and gathering, socializing and experiencing. Physically, they have become a cross between the kinds of elegant restaurants with which Mather started his career and the imposing private galleries of contemporary art that now dot cities around the globe. You are meant to feel smart (in both the American and the British sense of the word) and elegant in spaces that are the same—both grammatically and in terms of style. There is nothing amazing in this.

The Ashmolean’s collection is not a place of such amazement. They lost their great Cezanne to theft and their dodo, the last remaining example of the sort, to moths. Their greatest strengths are in studies and visual apercus by great masters, not set pieces. Mather’s work seems similarly a shadow of grander structures elsewhere. What I am missing at the Ashmolean, not just in content, but in the structure, is something that the even display has leeched out of all these thousands of objects: the power to surprise, to be troubled, and to be amazed.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.