Dr Alexander Sturgis is a British art historian and museum curator. He is the current Director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
“Museums have never been so popular…. So much of our experience becomes virtual that the importance of the real actually becomes greater.”
You previously worked at the National Gallery and the Holburne Museum in Bath. What is your experience at the Ashmolean?
My experience is that the richness of the collection is completely thrilling, and I find the engagement I am now having with the ancient world that I never had before really exciting.
The Ashmolean Museum was the first university museum. What is a university museum?
The Ashmolean was the first public museum in this country. From its beginnings in 1683 it was founded within the University of Oxford. The word museum was reinvented to describe it, and it was given to Oxford University to look after.
How do university museums differ from other museums?
University museums differ most from national museums in their responsibility to the way in which they are used in teaching, and their commitment to research. Other museums have this too, but University museums clearly have a very obvious commitment to research.
Like the Fogg Museum at Harvard, or the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, and so on…. Do you work together?
We are a community, both in this country and internationally. The Ashmolean differs in that as well as a mission and a duty towards its university it has had this public mission from its very beginning. We are by far the most visited University museum anywhere, with about 850,000 visitors a year.
How many of your visitors are students at Oxford University?
Most of our visitors are the general public, but through and with the collections we are actively teaching thousands of students in our study rooms.
How was the Museum’s collection built?
The original collection was given to the University by Elias Ashmole, whose idea the Museum was. Most of the collection was gathered by the father and son, John Tradescant the Elder and John Tradescant the Younger, who were gardeners to the royal family. As well as being gardeners they were travellers and plant collectors, and they collected objects that we would now call ethnographic material.
One of the great treasures of the museum is called Powhatan’s Mantle, an extraordinary deerskin decorated with cowrie shells and the figure of a man with two beasts on either side. This came from Powhatan, who was the Chief of the Virginian Indians in North America. He was the father of Pocahontas. It is the most significant artefact of its kind in the world, there is nothing like it in the United States. We think it was a gift to the King of England in the 1630s, at the very first moment of contact. That is one of the marvels that forms the core of our collection, and this same founding collection has spread throughout the University and also forms the core of the Natural History Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
What kind of museum is the Ashmolean now?
Today it’s a very different museum, a museum of art and archaeology across millennia. Its collection goes from 300,000 BC to yesterday, and across Europe, the Mediterranean world and the Near and Far East.
In what areas does the Ashmolean excel?
The Ashmolean has great breadth and moments of extraordinary depth within its collection. In small scale the Ashmolean has the richest collection of pre-Pharaonic Egyptian material anywhere outside of Cairo. It has the most important Minoan collection outside Greece, because Knossos was discovered by one of my predecessors, Sir Arthur Evans. Our collection of Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s drawings is extraordinary. We have Paolo Uccello’s ‘The Hunt in the Forest’, a British Pre-Raphaelite collection, we have the most beautiful landscape painting by Claude Lorrain. The Ashmolean Museum is often described as a collection of collections.
Is it like a small British Museum or a small Met?
It’s more like a mini-Met than a mini-British Museum, but South America, Australasia and Sub-Saharan Africa are absent. In the early 19th Century that material went to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is the museum of ethnography in Oxford.
Was the Ashmolean recently re-organised?
It was completely transformed in 2009 by my predecessor Christopher Brown, who pulled down buildings that had housed much of the collection at the back of the Museum and replaced them with the building designed by Rick Mather Architects. This has enabled us to re-display and re-interpret the collection.
In what way?
The guiding principle of the re-display was to suggest the connections between different cultures, different periods. The new building embodies that idea in many ways. There are these views through bridges between areas of the collection, but the way the collection was re-disposed through the museum also made that point.
What role do exhibitions play at the Ashmolean?
Exhibitions are a critical part of how museums work today, they are in many ways our lifeblood. They become the vehicle through which one learns about and communicates about one’s own collection. Exhibitions provide vitality, they are events, a way of communicating who you are as a museum. They encourage new audiences, bring back existing audiences, and enrich peoples’ understanding of collections.
What is your current programme?
We have just closed an Andy Warhol exhibition, and we have just opened Storms, War and Shipwrecks, an exhibition about Sicily and marine archaeology. It becomes a story about war, migration and trade, told through objects that have been discovered in the sea around this island which is a crossroads within the Mediterranean world. Our next exhibition is going to be on Islamic art. The range of our exhibition programmes reflects to some extent the range of our collections. Next year we will have a Raphael exhibition.
Are you in some ways a provincial museum?
We are an international museum, but Oxford is not London and that does change the way the museum behaves. We are a regional museum as well as being an international museum, and that means you behave slightly differently to your audiences than one would do in Trafalgar Square or Bloomsbury. Our relationship with our local audience is perhaps closer, but also with the 9 million tourists who come to Oxford every year.
Why do so many tourists come to Oxford?
They come for the “Harry Potter Experience”, the “Alice in Wonderland Experience”, the “Brideshead Revisited Experience”, there’s a whole host of associations people have with Oxford which in the end all stem from the university. There are other university museums and extraordinary sights to see, but there’s limited access to many of the colleges. The Ashmolean is one of the few open doors within the University.
Is entrance to the Ashmolean free?
Yes, it is. There is this great tradition of the free Museum in this country, which is often questioned. People ask why shouldn’t tourists pay, and why should British taxpayers support these institutions which let the rest of the world in for nothing? But I am convinced of the huge benefits of free admission to museums.
You are an art historian and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art?
Yes, I read History at Oxford and then I did a Doctorate in the History of Art at the Courtauld.
Many of the directors of the most important museums all over the world studied there. Is it a fraternity?
Yes and no. We know each other, in part because of where we studied, but also in part because of our professional lives. But it is not a closed shop, the routes that we have taken to where we are, are very different.
English people are in demand all over the world to run cultural institutions and museums. Is it because History of Art and Museology is taught better in England than elsewhere?
It is a curiosity in the States quite how many English directors and curators there are. I can’t explain this appetite. I am not sure it’s healthy that there is this trend, because I don’t believe we are better trained or more intelligent than anyone else. There are great directors who did not study at the Courtauld or go to Oxford and Cambridge, and I look forward to the day when there are even more.
Is there a “British School” of how to run contemporary museums?
I don’t think so.
Do you think running a museum today is very different to the past?
Yes, there are many more visitors and more importance is given to the public. Two key drivers that happened in England were the Heritage Lottery Fund, a State lottery, and then the arrival of a Labour Government. There was suddenly money for museums, and the political thought was that if you are going to spend public money on museums then you have to work harder to make them for the public. We have been more focussed for longer on the public as customers within museums.
Do you buy many new objects and paintings?
We acquire quite a lot, but on the whole we rely on gifts and bequests. Last year we had a campaign to buy Turner’s great painting of Oxford High Street. We are about to launch a campaign to buy a hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins that date from a moment in England’s history when King Alfred was chasing the Vikings out of the country. A few years back we bought a very important Manet painting, his Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus. We recently received an extraordinary collection of 20th Century Chinese ink paintings as a bequest, we have the most important collection of that kind of material anywhere outside China.
Nowadays masterpieces are very expensive, and almost all museums cannot afford to buy?
No, it’s true. The Turner we bought, we only bought a bit of it. Most of it was this scheme called the acceptance in lieu tax scheme. When a work of sufficient importance is given to a public museum by an individual when they die it enables them to write off inheritance tax. Without that scheme we would not be able to acquire to the extent that we do.
There are still amazing paintings and pieces of art in private collections in the UK. Should they go to museums?
I am all for public access to great works of art, but museums should not resent the art market and private collectors, because without them many works of art would not have survived. The value given to works of art actually helps protect them.
What is your major task?
The Ashmolean is behind the curve on making its collection successful digitally, and we need to do a lot of work on that if we are to be “the world’s greatest University museum”. We need to set ourselves a challenge in the digital area, to make our collections fully accessible digitally. Linked to it is to maximise the way in which we use our collections to teach, both within the university and more broadly, as a resource for research.
Nowadays in our digital world, strangely enough there are longer queues in front of the museums?
Museums have never been so popular.
In part because of the complicated world we live in. One reason is that so much of our experience becomes virtual that the importance of the real actually becomes greater. The other is that, in the political climate we have, museums help us connect and have an important role in helping us understand across cultures why the world is as it is today.
You have a nom de plume in another profession, as a magician?
The Great Xa, I used to call myself! I have enjoyed magic and being a magician since I was a child.
You have a double life?
As a student and beyond there was a moment when I supported myself doing it, and I still do it on occasion. My children are heartily sick of it by now, but last year I did it at the Glastonbury Festival. It’s comic, it’s enjoyable.
What do the serious Dons at Oxford University think about this?
I used to keep it more hidden than I now do. Thanks to the joys of YouTube, when I arrived at the Ashmolean almost every member of staff had seen me swallowing razor blades on a TV programme. I haven’t yet performed at the Ashmolean, although early on in my career I did magic shows with paintings at the National Gallery. There was a moment when the two sides came together.
There are parallels between magic and museums?
Illusionism plays a role in both museums and magic. There is a degree of the role of the Director which is a performance, to the public, to the staff, to the patrons, to the friends. You have to talk to a lot of people, to persuade, to celebrate, to encourage.
Do you learn new tricks?
I have got my box of magic tricks, and I haven’t learnt a new trick for rather too long. There is less time to devote to magic than there was.
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London, 23rd June 2016