31 December 2009

Ashmolean Museum

Well, it's open after its major refit and rebuild. Goodness only knows how many extra galleries. Except that it isn't really open, because two of my favourite galleries, the Roman and the Casts Galleries, aren't yet ready. And I've got a nasty suspicion that the great majority of the Greek vases is now hidden away in storage.

And what a disappointment, for the country's oldest museum to be so dumbed down. What a disgrace that a collection belonging to one of the world's greatest learned communities should manifest persistent illiteracy. When I am shown an ivory ?Viking crosier head, I expect to see more on the label than a Primary-School-style invitation to fantasise on the carved animals. It's like that now. Except that actually finding any labels at all for a lot of exhibits is terribly difficult. And if you do find a label for any exhibit which has a Eucharistic connection, you will find the Eucharist referred to as 'Holy Communion'. This is very unlikely to do more than confuse the unchurched reader, who may not readily understand why a picture of a Monstrance holding a wafer for 'Holy Communion' was painted over by Protestants. He will have been told either too little or too much. And I suspect he is plain misinformed when told that the design cut from the top of an amnos is from bread used in 'Holy Communion'. If that amnos was consecrated, it was presumably cut up and immersed in the chalice, not given to a tourist.

The same illiteracy extends to sexual matters. A Greek vase showing one of those common scenes described by the late President of Corpus, our own dear Sir Kenneth Dover, as "intercrural intercourse" is explained to Jo Public in terms of a Pedophile and a Victim, thus ignoring the historical and social nature in its own context of the exchange portrayed in favour of irrelevant modern stereotyping. (It was just near there that we were swept aside by an angry mother who was explaining to a tiny girl, who looked all of two-and-a-half, that "Women had no public role in ancient Greece". Honest: those were her exact words. For so many people Antiquity is indeed a very strange country.)

It's yer whiggery everywhere; Butterfield never lived. History is shoved into your face according to the preconceptions of a certain school who imposed their patterns on it after it had all happened. Take the "Oxford" gallery. Most of the wall on one side is a time-chart. And on that we learn about the Foundation of Duke Humphrey's Library ... but not that the Protestants gutted it and burned all the books. About how Henry Tudor founded Christ Church ... but not about the destruction of the five grandest buildings in medieval Oxford: Oseney and Rewley Abbeys and the Houses of the Black and Grey and White Friars. About Cranmer and Ridley and Latymer being burned, but not about how Oxford's brightest and best under Elizabeth Tudor had to slip away to foreign seminaries and upon their returns were horribly executed (at least the modern memorial in the University Church decently lists indiscriminately all those who died in the Reformation turmoils).

I could go on. Ashmole has the best Minoan collections outside Greece, because of the contributions of Sir Arthur Evans (the excavator of Cnossos). The old gallery was arranged by Evans himself. You might have thought that his arrangement could have been reproduced, as being a significant cultural construct in its own right.

The best room is probably the ground floor gallery with the Arundel marbles ... more or less as they were before the interior decorators struck. My hero Menander is still there.

Go to the Pitt Rivers if you want to see a sensitively restored museum.


Sui Juris said...

Well, quite. My own bete noire in such galleries: eucharistic kit such as chalices labelled "*was* used for Holy Communion" in the past tense. Of course, applied to that particular item the past tense is probably right, but the impression given is that the eucharist is some ritual from the distant past, rather than something happening every day, using very similar artefacts to the ones on display. The V&A is particularly bad for this.

I'm not surprised at the angry mother's comment; everyone knows that the olden days were bad and wrong in every way. I had a parishioner this Christmas (a doctor, no less) who seriously brough up the old chestnut that "it's harder for us to believe in the Virgin Birth because we know more about reproduction than they did." I had to point out that the ancients did have some notion that babies came from sex. But to most people it seems that truly ancient history begins a century or so ago.

The Raven (C. Corax) said...

I find looking at monastic sites maintained by English heritage particularly irritating: one could leave many of their sites with the firm impression that the orders in question passed into oblivion during the reformation (one can leave Mount Grace believing that the Carthusians are no more and in blissful ignorance of their re-establishment at Parkminster and at many sites the Cistercians are equally consigned to the past); and in many cases they don't identify which order had the site in the first place (their failure to highlight the uniqueness of the Gilbertine houses is particularly saddening).