Museum exhibition design

Interpretative design

The Ashmolean Story: interpretative design of the founding collection

This permanent gallery re-interpretative design was to mark the 400th anniversary of Elias Ashmole’s birth. This display tells how the first modern museum was created.

When the Ashmolean museum opened in 1683 it was a new kind of public institution. Specifically intended to combine the functions of a repository for rare and curious materials with a research and educational establishment.

Interpretative design the Ashmolean Story gallery

Design brief

  • to create a space which is light, airy, clean and with curiosity and interest but not cluttered
  • emphasise the natural history collection
  • create drama and an impressive view from the upper floors therefore making full use of the high space
  • consider light protection for organic materials
  • circulation space for group tours and highlighting key objects

The Creative Idea

The design interpretation needed to be unique, dramatic, elegant and striking to express this globally-important story.

The majority of objects in the founding collection are smaller scale. So, I needed to discover a way of enabling a focused view of the collections within this high gallery. Also, glass top cases and focal points were needed to create an eye-catching and impactful view from upper levels.

I created a room within a room in order for the visitor to closely connect with the story being told. This fundamental concept was achieved by using display cases as walls and doorways. The most unusual aspect to this scheme are the lintel cases which allow the visitor to see objects in the round.

There are no depictions of the original Ashmolean displays. The only reference was representations of later museum interiors and baroque architecture which was formal, geometrical and symmetrical. This influence is shown through the paintings displayed high up on ledges and a balanced layout.

A super-graphic of the original museum building symbolises the creation of the new museum and accentuates the symmetry. The image is centrally aligned with the welcome object, doorways and Powhatan’s Mantle at the heart of the gallery.

Rather than recreate, I wanted to show an essence of a 17th century cabinet of curiosities. As a result cases are deliberately higher to reflect the elegant proportions of the period. Furthermore, a sectioned sloped backboard and glass box echoes sectioned wooden display trays. All elements are designed with minimal ornamentation, neutral colour scheme (e.g. grayscale graphics), unfussy materials and finishes. The design interpretation provides a clean, integrated and seamless backdrop in order to access and embrace the collection.

In relation to the Ashmolean’s permanent galleries, I have created a unique and unexpected design scheme. I tried to harness the transformative power of design interpretation to make a difference. Ashmole’s vision ultimately laid the foundations for museums as we know them today and the Ashmolean story now has the prominence it deserves.

See more exhibition design work.

Interpretative design the Ashmolean Story gallery