Oxford, United Kingdom

Not long ago, the ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, was like many of the objects it houses: an antique earthen-ware vessel, astonishing for what it was in its day, but not something that worked well for everyday use in modern times.


The Ashmolean was founded in 1677, when Elias Ashmole, a wealthy Englishman and avid accumulator, donated his collections to Oxford University. These included the “cabinet of curiosities,” stuffed animals and ethnographic relics acquired by John Tradescant and his son, John the Younger, 17th-century naturalists and gardeners who endeavored to gather and preserve “all knowledge.” The original Ashmolean (now housing Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science) was the first building in Europe constructed specifically as a public museum.

Over the next 200 years, the Ashmolean shifted away from the natural sciences and amassed an impressive collection of art and cultural artifacts. In 1845, the museum moved into a Neoclassical building designed by Charles Robert Cockerell. The great south-facing expanse of the building gave it a palatial appearance, but in fact it was just one bay deep and only contained a total of 22,000 square feet of exhibition space on three floors. In the 1890s, a lot to the north was acquired, and though the site is hemmed in by buildings on three sides, the museum gained another 28,000 square feet by constructing a series of glass-roofed, cast-iron industrial sheds there.

During the ensuing 150 years, the Ashmolean’s collection grew further, in part through the finds of Oxford archaeologists such as Sir Arthur Evans, but the museum was so small, only a fraction of the art could be displayed. It also lacked climate-controlled space to show textiles, a back-of-house area, and even a loading dock.

In 1999, Rick Mather Architects was hired to do a master plan, including an evaluation of the collections and extensive historic research on the building. Principal Rick Mather, a native of Oregon, came to London in the 1960s to study urban design at the Architecture Association and decided to stay. His firm has been responsible for a number of museum and cultural projects, including significant restoration work and an addition for the Sir John Soane–designed Dulwich Picture Gallery, in Dulwich, London.

The master plan yielded vital documentation for the Listed Building Consent application, an arduous process required for the alteration of historic buildings in the U.K. Although the resulting Listed Building Consent permitted the demolition of the sheds, it also “made it a condition that you could not see the new building from the street,” says Ashmolean’s director Christopher Brown. This limited the height of the addition. “What Rick Mather had to do was work within a sort of box of space.”

Brown comments, “Oxford has a taste for pastiche, and I wanted a building of 2009.” But he also had a requirement that created a spatial puzzle for the architects. Characteristically, museums organize their collections by department (Greek, Roman, and so on), but this kind of design isolates collections, making it difficult to form connections between them. Brown wanted diverse objects to be displayed according to their cultural associations and time period, showing how they relate to each other visually so that “they communicated with each other.” When visitors moved through the galleries, they would be able to piece together the story of how different cultures influenced each other by observing the art.

The resulting expansion is a deft insertion of a new concrete-framed building into the void that remained when the sheds were taken down. The position of the basement, first, and second floors of the original building set the heights of the basement, first, and third floors of the new portion (see section, below). The spaces are organized around a central atrium that is on axis with Cockerell’s double-height entry. On one side of this atrium, a series of beautifully crafted staircases allows patrons to move from one level to the next. Bridges located on the first and third levels span double-height galleries on the ground and second floors. No gallery is more than a few steps away from the atrium, and many look into it as well, enabling daylight to be an orientation device. “Without it, it would be like you were looking at art in the basement of a battleship,” says Mather. Sound transmitted throughout the building by this core helps give the interior a lively atmosphere, avoiding the hushed austerity typical of older museums.

Mather’s design does an extraordinary job of organizing the Ashmolean’s collection rationally, helped considerably by the firm’s extensive analysis of it during the master-planning phase. It effectively doubles the available exhibition space. Now there are 39 galleries, and 35 of them display the permanent collection. The addition does not intersect with Cockerell’s galleries too often. This helps avoid the experience common to many expansions, where visitors are forced to time-travel much too frequently between rooms with herringbone parquet floors and big base moldings, and others with floors and ceilings of ice-white Sheetrock. Here, the galleries that have been renovated in the old building have maintained their original Victorian flair.

Two things fortunately missing from this addition are air-conditioning grilles and drafty air. Spaces are conditioned using displacement ventilation: Air is circulated through concealed slots at the tops and bottoms of walls at such low velocities that it cannot be felt. Brown finally has his properly conditioned textile galleries (and a loading dock). “It is hard to adapt a 19th-century building to modern museum practice,” he says, “but we have caught up now.”