The British weather seems to have been caught in two minds lately – nothing new in that. If it hasn’t been raining like a broken gutter, it’s been as hot as the subcontinent. It’s lucky, therefore, that we have so many fantastic museums and galleries in which to take refuge. While the primary motive for visiting such places might be our (and perhaps our children’s) enlightenment, there are numerous other reasons for ducking in.
They’re free, or most of them are thanks to the National Lottery and the triumph of the idea that you don’t need to charge entry to make money from the punters. These places seem as committed to their shop and cafe operations as they are to their curation. Postcards and books, and drinks and sandwiches; anything they can think of that you might want to buy. And those donation-boxes or guilt-boxes or whatever the corporate name is for them always seem generously full and expertly placed to catch the eye (or the shin) before visitors leave the premises.
The British Isles may be home to other places of refuge, but go into a cafe and you know they’ll insist on selling you something. At least in a gallery you can opt for the free Gainsborough rather than the two-pound coffee. You could try perusing the board-mounted works of art most cafes now seem to have hanging on their walls, colourfully depicting the exotic origins of their coffee beans, but those already supping on their Mocha Macchiato Lattes might well start perusing you, only they’ll be considering who to notify for your psychiatric committal rather than the provenance of that Guatemala print.
In many ways museums and galleries have taken over from our old clerical buildings (unless they’ve since decided to change their designation to museums, too), some of which now charge for access to their serene atmosphere. Some might even argue that they’ve superseded cathedrals and great churches as places of spiritual and intellectual awakening. A development to please Professor Dawkins, no doubt.
But museums and galleries are not all newly established. In fact, many of them seem to have their origins somewhere in that great period of British scientific and intellectual advancement from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The country’s (and the world’s) first museum open to the public was the Old Ashmolean on Broad Street, Oxford, built in 1683 to house the collection of Elias Ashmole (1617-92).
That collection – much augmented in subsequent years – is now housed in the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology on Beaumont Street. But the old building continued as a museum and is now Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science.
Without getting too sentimental or collectivist about it, these places are real gems. In many ways they represent the mark of civilisation, where a sense of the civic (in the citizenship rather than the city or town sense of the word) has risen from the babel. And inside these civilised buildings one finds tranquility and calm and refuge from the meteorological and human pandemonium found outside. Summer tourism might bring some of it inside, but even so, one senses a clear change of pace there.
The Old Ashmolean began life not only as home to Ashmole’s collection, but as the University’s School of Natural History. Lecturing and demonstration took place on the middle and upper floors, and experimentation in the chemical laboratory in the basement. But this all ceased when scientific study moved to larger premises and the building became the Museum of the History of Science, its exhibits founded on the collection of Lewis Evans (1853-1930) left to the university in 1924. It is now home to arguably the world’s finest collection of early scientific equipment.
The place is packed with astrolabes, sundials, quadrants and other early mathematical instruments associated with astronomy, surveying and navigation. In addition to British exhibits, the collection includes examples from 19th century China, 13th and 14th century Islamic Spain, North Africa and Ottoman Turkey, and 9th and 10th century Syria, and elsewhere. And in the basement, there are examples of apparatuses used in work on penicillin, atomic numbers and anaesthesia, not to mention early photography and projection, and equipment donated by the Marconi Company.
There are more sizeable museums to visit, and if you want a cafe then you should probably go somewhere else, but it’s a hidden gem of civic Britain, and a place in which the visitor can quite happily take refuge for a couple of hours from the weather, come rain of shine.