The finishing touches are being applied to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, which reopens its doors on Saturday after a £61m redevelopment.
The robes of Lawrence of Arabia, a sword presented to Henry VIII and the Ashmolean’s new acquisition by Titian will be among the treasures on view in the museum for the first time.
But it will be the building itself that people will be eager to see after the biggest museum development seen in the UK since the completion of the Tate Modern in London nine years ago.
The doors of the Ashmolean will open to the public at 10am on Saturday, when visitors will be able to see the results of a project that has been ten years in the planning, with 39 new galleries created and the display area increased by 100 per cent.
The museum will open six days a week, Tuesday to Sunday, from 10am to 6pm. Admission is free.
The Oxford Times was invited to an early viewing of the ‘new’ Ashmolean, designed by the award-winning Rick Mather Architects.
The most striking new feature on entering the building is a large atrium running through the centre of the building, connecting all six storeys, which is lit with large windows to allow natural light to filter through the building.
An impressively large figure of Apollo, a cast of the famous statue in Olympia, will greet visitors to the floors of new galleries, that will allow the museum to display many exhibits for the first time.
Robes worn by T.E. Lawrence, which the desert warrior donated to All Souls College, Oxford, will be the centrepiece of an exhibition of valuable textiles. And a 17th-century wooden door originally from India, sent home from Saudi Arabia by Lawrence, will also be displayed for the first time.
Another striking exhibit is the golden burial pall that covered the coffin of Henry VII.
Dr Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean, said: “There have been many things, such as our collection of textiles, that we have been unable to put on display until now because they require special environmental conditions.”
The Ashmolean now boasts Oxford’s first rooftop restaurant, able to seat a total of 160 people, with special education rooms for visiting school groups, who will be able to see an exact replica of the ancient throne room in Knossos.
One of the exhibition rooms has been given over to the story of the Ashmolean itself, the world’s first public museum, which opened in 1683.
There will also be a temporary exhibition that will reveal the story of the redevelopment, which attracted a £15m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Linbury Trust, founded by the Sainsbury Family, also committed £11.5m to the scheme, allowing the Ashmolean to launch its public appeal. The museum is still faced with raising another £12m.
Dr Brown said that soon after arriving as director, 11 years ago, the roof of one of the huts behind the museum’s famous neo-classical frontage blew off, spelling out to him the need for a radical solution to the museum’s structural and maintenance problems.
Dr Brown said his other ambition was to increase public access and ensure the famous collections were better understood and enjoyed.
“All through this there has been real determination by Oxford University to reopen the Ashmolean as a great public museum,” he said.
The innovative new approach to displaying the collections is called ‘crossing cultures, crossing times’, which invites visitors on a journey through themed galleries, exploring the connections between objects and activities common to different cultures, such as money, human image, reading and writing and textiles. Among the Ashmolean’s treasures are the world’s largest group of Raphael drawings, the most important collection of pre-Dynastic Egyptian material in Europe and the greatest Anglo-Saxon collections outside the British Museum.
The museum has been closed for ten months because of the extensive building work. The official opening of the Ashmolean will take place in early December.