Sunday, 23 September 2007

A Day in the Museum

ashmolean museum statue
I'm determined this year to force-feed my children culture like a foie gras farmer feeding grain to a goose: Open up kids, here it comes! The weekend before last the culture injection was an open house at Christ Church, the Oxford college whose Great Hall was the setting for some scenes from Harry Potter. Last weekend it was Oxford's famed Ashmolean Museum.

My idea of seeing a museum is to get there right when it opens, to be the first to stride through the doors, before even the uniformed docents have reached the furthest recesses of the gallery. This is impossible with teenagers. They are capable of prodigious feats of sleep. I have found that barging into teenagers' rooms, ripping the sheets from their beds and shouting, "Wake up! We're going to the Ashmolean!" is actually counterproductive. It raises the degree of festering resentment above the already toxic background level that chitters in a teenager like a Geiger counter near a glow-in-the-dark watch.

So I bided my time on Saturday and only when when they were up and fed and washed and dressed did I remind them what the day had in store for them. I think they were really touched by my interest in their cultural development. They were thanking me all the way there.

Here's something I didn't know: The Ashmolean is named after someone named Ashmole. This surprised me for two reasons. First, because I'd assumed it was a Latin word. Second, because I felt sorry for Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). I can imagine how tough it was for him as a kid: "Nice move, Ashmole!" (Or would that be "Arshmole"?)

Anyway, the Ashmolean is one of the oldest museums in the world--one of the first institutions, in fact, to go by that word: museum. It opened in 1683 and the bulk of its collection included artifacts that had been gathered by a father and son named Tradescant, from whom Elias Ashmole purchased the curiosities.

I have a fondness for jumbled museums that don't try to teach you too much. They're not in vogue anymore and, in fact, the Ashmolean is undergoing a renovation. Perhaps when that work is done the museum will be a place that's heavy on the wall text and the context, and not an assortment of objects in cases and paintings in frames.

In its current state the Ashmolean illustrates what enthusiasts the English are and, evidently, always have been. They like stuff: collecting it, cataloging it, displaying it. The best illustration of this was not one, but two cases full of early English spoons:

ashmolean spoons

If you like old spoons, that's your place.

The object I really wanted to see--and wanted my children to see--was something called the Alfred Jewel. It's more the jewel of the Ashmolean's collection than an actual jewel. In fact, it's hard to say exactly what it is. The Hope Diamond it is not. Rather, it's a 9th-century ornament about the size of a cigarette lighter. A teardrop-shaped piece of rock crystal covers an enameled figure. A snouty sort of animal head is at one end and an inscription runs around the whole jewel: Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan, "Alfred ordered me to be made."

That would be King Alfred. The jewel may have been one of several that he gave as gifts, to be used as pointers when reading religious texts. I can see the reaction: "Uh, thanks Alfred. It's a, um, pointer for reading religious texts you say? Just what I always wanted." (It's believed Alfred gave the religious text too.)

alfred jewel

Or maybe they didn't. Maybe it's not a pointer after all. They aren't really sure.

As the museum undergoes renovation, some of its most treasured objects are gathered together in the same room, so that a mere jewel's throw from the Alfred Jewel is Powhatan's mantle, a cloak once owned by the native chief who so impressed Capt. John Smith.
Looking at the shell-embroidered animal skin--both of us transplants from the same distant land--I thought about how Pocahontas herself, if I were to take her to the Ashmolean, would surely recognize it as belonging to her father.

If, that is, I was able to get her out of bed.


suburbancorrespondent said...

We're considering removing the guard rail from my teenage daughter's upper bunk when we need her to arise before 10. We figure that, if we're lucky, she'll roll over and the fall might wake her.

Maybe "Alfred had me made" is some sort of graffiti prototype, akin to "Kilroy was here" or "Americans, go home!"

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Paul said...

Powhatan's mantle is my favourite item in the Ashmoleans collection. Earlier this year my wife and I visited Jamestown settlement and they have artefacts from the early English colonists displayed alongside Powhatan material culture. Watch "The New World" or check out National Geographic's online Jamestown 400 exhibition at