Museum Design Projects

Interpretative design

The Ashmolean Story

Marking the 400th anniversary of Elias Eshmole’s birth in 2017, the Ashmolean transformed gallery 2 at the centre of its lower ground floor to tell how the first modern museum was created.

When the Ashmolean museum opened in 1683 it was a new kind of public institution. Its founder Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) specifically intended it 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 and clean, with curiosity and interest but not cluttered
  • emphasise the natural history collection
  • create drama and an impressive view from the upper floors, making full use of the high space
  • consider light protection for organic materials
  • circulation space for group tours- 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 the designer needed to discover a way of enabling an intimate, focused view of the collections within this high gallery. Other key design considerations were to have glass top cases and focal points to create an eye-catching and impactful view from upper levels.

The designer 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 so 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.

The super-graphic of an engraving of the original museum building not only symbolises the creation of the new museum but also further accentuates the symmetry. The museum entrance on the engraving is aligned on the central axis with the welcome object, doorways and one of the museums’ star objects at the heart of the gallery.

Rather than recreate, the designer wanted to show an essence of a 17th century cabinet of curiosities. Cases are deliberately higher to reflect the elegant proportions of the period. A sectioned sloped backboard and glass box echoes sectioned wooden 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 our other permanent galleries, the designer has created a unique and unexpected design scheme. She has harnessed 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.

Interpretative design the Ashmolean Story gallery