BROAD STREET, OXFORD

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Museum of the History of Science

Museum of the History of Science

The Museum of the History of Science (or “Old Ashmolean”) is a Grade I listed building (List Entry No. 1369352, and for screen wall and piers 1299669). It was built in Headington stone by the University in 1679–83, and patched with Clipsham stone in 1960. It was the first museum in the world to open its doors to the public.

This museum was probably designed by the Oxford master-mason Thomas Wood, and was opened in 1683 by James, Duke of York (later James II) whose cipher and crown can be seen on the north front. It cost the then massive sum of £4,500, and was built to house the collection of natural curiosities that had been inherited from John Tradescant the Younger by Elias Ashmole (1617–92), and was thus known as the Musaeum Ashmoleanum. The first curator was Robert Plot (1640–96), Professor of Chemistry. In February 1683 he wrote to a friend, “Fryday next I goe for London to fetch down Mr Ashmole’s Collections towards furnishing this House, when I guess I shall spend about a month in Catalogueing and boxing them up.”

The School of Natural History was on the middle floor and the first chemical laboratory in England in the basement; later the basement was also used for practical anatomy, and on 10 April 1762 Parson Woodforde wrote: “Went under the Musaeum to see a Woman that is to be dissected for which I paid 0. 0. 6.”

Inside of the Old Ashmolean

The above picture shows some of the exhibits in the lower room of the Museum in the mid-1840s. From 1846 some of the museum’s objects of antiquity and works of art were transferred to the new University Galleries in Beaumont Street; from 1860 the natural history items transferred to the University Museum; and in the 1880s the ethnographical specimens moved to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Kelly’s Directory for 1891 describes what was left in the Old Ashmolean Museum in Broad Street:

The Ashmolean Museum, westward of the theatre, was built in 1679–83 from plans by Mr Thomas Wood, architect, to contain the collection of curiosities made by John Tradescant, a Dutchman, and gardener to Charles  I, which his son, the younger Tradescant, bequeathed to Elias Ashmole, who in turn, in 1679, offered it to the university: the collection, including many additions made by Ashmole, is rich in manuscripts connected with heraldry and genealogy, now placed in the Bodleian Library, and the geological collection is said to be one of the best in the kingdom: but many alterations have been made in the Museum, owing to the removal of the natural history specimens to the New Museum; the basement is now the receptacle of a part of the Arundel and other inscribed marbles; the middle room contains various Anglo-Saxon and Mediaeval antiquities, and amongst the former is the celebrated Alfred jewel; there are also ethnological collections made by Captains Cook and Beechey: the upper room, which had long been used for examinations, has quite recently been re-appropriated to the use of the museum, which is open daily from 2 till 4; Arthur John Evans M.A., keeper.

The last listing of the building in directories as the “Ashmolean Museum” is in 1895. For the next twenty years it was used only as university offices, and by 1899 its name had been appropriated by the extension of the University Galleries in Beaumont Street, so that henceforth the museum in Broad Street is listed as “Old Ashmolean Building”.

In 1924 the Old Ashmolean began to assume the role of a museum again, when its upper floor was assigned to the Lewis Evans collection of scientific instruments which had just been presented to the university. In 1935 the building was established by statute as the Museum for the History of Science.

Occupants of the Museum of the History of Science
listed in directories since 1846

1846–1895

Ashmolean Museum

1904–1926



Old Ashmolean Building

Ground Floor: Oxford English Dictionary

First Floor: Oxford University Appointments Committee and
D
elegacy for Instruction of Indian Civil Service Candidates
(both from 1921)

Upper Floor: School of Geography (1904–1918)

1926–1935

Old Ashmolean Building

Lewis Evans Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments
“Robert T. Gunther, MA, LLD curator;
open [’free’ added from 1932] to the public 11am to 4pm daily”

Middle Floor;
Oxford English Dictionary (1926–1934)
Oxford Latin Dictionary (from 1935)

1936–1939

1936–1939
Old Ashmolean Building

Museum for the History of Science, including the Lewis Evans Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments
“Robert T. Gunther, MA, LLD curator; open free to the public 11am to 4pm daily”

Middle Floor;
Oxford Latin Dictionary
Dictionary for National Biography (1939 only)

1941–present

Museum of the History of Science

Oxford History Home

Stephanie Jenkins

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