Year 12 Inspire – The Ashmolean Museum

About The Ashmolean Museum:

The Ashmolean Museum was founded in 1683 and is the second oldest university museum in the world. The Ashmolean has amassed a vast collection of cultural artefacts, and 120,000 these are now recorded online. These artefacts encompass a variety of historic time periods, allowing the museum to display everything from Ancient Egyptian mummies to contemporary art exhibitions. This enables the museum to convey exciting stories from arrange of diverse cultures and time periods.  In turn, the museum is also aware of its social responsibility and the need for the cultures from which these artefacts originated to have a voice themselves. Therefore, many of the museum’s contemporary projects engage in community outreach. This allows different cultures the chance to tell their own stories and offer perspectives on the heritage of each object.

Activity 1: ‘Opening the Box’ Podcast (Episode 7)

In this podcast, museum curator Dr Jim Harris explores the mysteries of tortoiseshell box, one of the objects of the Ashmolean Museum’s collection. The box contains a secret portrait of a woman, and a lock of her hair is enclosed. Whilst this may seem characteristic of many other museum objects, the box raises some interesting questions. The history of its ownership is intertwined with many well-known figures, and there is an unease surrounding the way that this wealth was acquired.

Activity 2: Cai Guo-Qiang & Gunpowder Art

In this video, artist Cai Guo-Qiang discusses his unique art, which uses a combination of oil impression drawing and gunpowder. Drawing inspiration from this explosive substance, Cai Guo-Qiang argues that art should have an element of surprise and be free from restraint. , Cai Guo-Qiang draws inspiration from his childhood and the presence of gunpowder in the culture of his hometown village. In doing so, he highlights the way in which gunpowder can signify struggle in search of freedom within society, something which is attested in his artwork.

Activity 2: Owning the Past Exhibition

In this exhibition, the Ashmolean showcases objects of Middle Eastern origin, highlighting the role that colonialism has played in their acquisition. Previously, the stories behind these items have prioritised Western-centric perspective. As a result, the voices of communities who used and owned these items were largely overlooked. However, the ‘Owning the Past’ exhibition has sought to rectify this, documenting these objects from the perspective of these previously ignored communities. By consulting the communities who know these objects best, these groups have been given space to convey their own culture and stories.


Activities 1 and 3 highlight how exhibited objects often have complicated and controversial histories. Many exhibits were acquired under colonialism, which had lasting consequences for the ways in which these objects have been documented and displayed. The Ashmolean now collaborates with the communities affected by colonialism in order to provide a more comprehensive account of each object and its significance.

Imagine that you are the Curator of the Ashmolean. Choosing one object from the Museum’s online collection as your ‘highlight’, consider what kind of exhibition you would create around it. Write down your answers to the following questions:

  • What are some of the potential ethical issues in the way this object was acquired?
  • How would you go about rectifying the way this object is displayed in order to provide a more transparent account of its origins? Move beyond simply consulting the community from which it originates.