David Berry, 'A Purse Made of Pins by a Lunatic': Curiosities in the Ashmolean Museum
In the Ashmolean Museum, there lie the remains of a real collection of curiosities - 'A purse made of pins by a lunatic', the 'Robe of the King of Virginia' and a mermaid's hand amongst others. Displayed in the 'Exploring the Past' gallery of the new redevelopment, these objects speak of a museum and mode of collection long gone - or so it would seem. For the very fact of their presentation in the museum of today accords them a particular relevance. What is this relevance? How do these objects, strange, marginal and dubious as they are, speak to the visitor today? And what is their position in the newly redisplayed galleries?
The Ark of the Tradescants, a collection opened to the public, displayed items collected from all over the world to all walks of life. Threatened by the deaths of the men of the Tradescant family, the collection passed to the lawyer Elias Ashmole, who entered into negotiations with the University of Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum, a space also of scientific investigation, which approached the idea of Bacon's New Atlantis, opened in the presence of the king in the April of 1683. Though it contained a laboratory and a School of Natural History, it's educative value was heavily debated at the time - those members of the university who followed the tennet that text was all denigrated it as a 'knick-knackery.'
Yet this knick-knackery has created particular kinds of objects. One of the most iconic figures is, of course, the Oxford Dodo, the most complete surviving example of such a bird in existence, but which was destroyed bar its foot and head when it became too degraded to retain. This object has been used for scientific research, but also as poetic inspiration for Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. And this object, of course, was transfered to the University Museum of Natural History - so why is its story still relevant, and told, in the Ashmolean of the present?
Curious artefacts have a particular way of speaking. Trying to lay them out in a preset way often becomes a problem when we begin to deal with the speaking qualities of these objects. They demand their own kind of presence. But of course, our interaction with, and interpretation of, these items has changed over time. No longer seen as scientific specimens as much as objects which tell a story of an institution, its changes and its histories, illustrations of mutating understandings of objects and modes of display, old and strange curiosities occupy a very special, and powerful place within the museum, particularly in the odd, palimpsestual, old-new creature which is the Ashmolean.