A Local's Guide to the Famous Oxford Museums
Have you ever thought about coming to Oxford? You’ve heard from friends or family that Oxford has a vast amount of culture, but what can you discover in the city?
History can be found in every corner, especially Oxford’s famous museums, holding the most cultural parts of Oxford. In this article we will share some of the insights about the most famous museums, including what to see during your visit. Are you ready for your next adventure?
6 Famous Oxford Museums
1. Ashmolean Museum
Photo credit: The Oxford Magazine
The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology was established in 1683. It is Britain's first public museum and it is home to half a million years of human history and creativity, from ancient Egyptian mummies to modern art, and much more (University of Oxford, 2021).
If you are planning to visit only one of the museums in Oxford, we would recommend this one. Described as a smaller version of the British Museum, it is packed with everything from royal jewellery to small historical items that were used to ward off evil spirits. It contains some of the most well-known art exhibitions - although we can’t tell you which exhibitions to go see as they change throughout the year. So, take a look at their website to see the upcoming exhibits and plan your trip accordingly.
We’ve mentioned the variety the Ashmolean Museum has to offer, but what can you expect when you visit? They offer many different collections which we’ll share a selection of below.
From paintings, ceramics and sculptures, you could explore the Ashmolean’s antiquities collection.
The Ashmolean has a collection that contains “internationally renowned archaeological collections with particular strengths in prehistoric Europe, the Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Minoan Aegean, Mycenaean and Classical Greece, Ancient Cyprus, the Roman world and Medieval and later Europe.” (Ashmolean, 2021)
Western Art and Eastern Art
Holding outstanding collections of European fine and decorative arts, the Ashmolean also has an extraordinary collection that contains around 25,000 drawings and over 250,000 prints.
Further from their western art, they also have a collection of eastern art - this ranges from sculpture, textiles, ceramics and painting from the Islamic Middle East, China, Japan and more.
What’s more, you can now view all their collections online! For more information look on their website to discover the range.
We have only mentioned a few of the exhibitions that they offer. Even if one of them doesn’t take your interest, we are certain that you will be able to find one that you can fully indulge yourself in. They really do have something for everyone to explore at the Ashmolean.
If you do plan to visit soon, you’ll be pleased to know that entry is completely free. However, when the Ashmolean Museum has a particular exhibition going on, please be mindful that you need to pay an entry fee to enter those specific exhibitions.
2. Pitt Rivers Museum
Founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford contains more than 500,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world, with a collection that holds objects that can be found from all periods of human existence.
The Pitt Rivers Museum is loved by many locals, both new and old to Oxford - with their vast collections, the museum continuously updates, bringing in new and old artefacts, while still keeping with the relevance of the museum theme.
With a name as unique as its founder, the Pitt Rivers Museum holds historical stories from Britain's colonial past while capturing the fascinating parallels which emerged across cultures all around the world, encouraging you to ask questions about how humanity tackled problems, and how in the past they were able to create an understanding of life across the world.
The collections at the museum have an extraordinary range and depth, showcasing objects of “historical, social and ritual significance, a mixture of great works of art, technology, invention and design from around the world.” (Pitt River Museum, 2021)
Some locals refer to the museum as the ‘museum of a museum’ - the meaning behind this because of how old the museum is, with locals believing it holds original artefacts from when it first opened. This is however not true. The museum has always adapted and changed over time, ensuring that the collections they showcase are continuously updated to remain meaningful in contemporary culture.
If you are interested in the older collections, don’t feel as though they won’t have this when you go to visit. The Pitt River Museum will always continue to inspire those breath-taking questions about the past - and you’ll be surprised at the diverse culture that they have on show, including how it relates not only to the locals but to every visitor.
The museum is free and open to everyone, so be sure to take advantage of it. Many academics use this museum for teaching purposes for all ages, including the University of Oxford. So why not also join in the learning by paying them a trip and expanding your historical knowledge.
However, if you are unable to travel to the museum for yourself, they offer a Virtual Tour, where you can wander around the galleries in the comfort of your own home. Start your tour today!
3. Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Oxford University Museum of National History was founded in 1860. During this time, the museum was allegedly built to understand God's creation of our planet Earth. If you are to go to the museum, we would recommend looking out for the angle hidden in plain sight upon entry of the building - it is holding a bible in one hand and dividing cells in another.
The museum is also described to be holding the centre for scientific study at the University of Oxford. It houses stunning examples of neo-Gothic architecture, geological and zoological specimens, and features the famous Oxfordshire dinosaurs. If that isn’t enough for you to see, it also is the only museum that holds the soft tissue remains of a dodo.
You may think that this museum just houses specimens and findings of evolutions. And you are not wrong in thinking that because Charles Darwin's discovery on the theory of evolution was the first public event hosted at the museum for the Great Debate on evolution - a debate which took battle between Bishop Wilberforce and T.H. Huxley.
Aside from the geological and zoological specimens, the building itself contains a story. When you enter the building, you will notice the museum’s architecture - if not, just lookup. As soon as you enter you will have an experience like no other; you can see the architectural work that has gone into designing the building to what it is today. You will know that you have just walked into history.
The building style has been strongly influenced by the ideas of 19th-century art critic, John Ruskin. Ruskin's architectural vision was to create a building that represented both science and art. Successfully making his vision come to life, we now have a prime example of the Pre-Raphaelite vision of science and art.
On average the museum has over 700,000 visitors per year. These visitors range from families, researchers, academics, school children and university students - there really is something for everyone to enjoy here!
What’s more, the museum is also free, so you too can plan your visit and uncover the depths of science and art.
4. History of Science Museum
Photo credit: Britain Express
The History of Science Museum is located on Broad Street, Oxford. The Museum was established in 1924 as a place to house the Lewis Evans Collection donation, and then it was open to the public a year after.
You may be thinking, what is so special about this museum? What sort of objects or artefacts are held? The History of Science Museum houses an unrivalled collection of historic scientific instruments, in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building. In fact, this was the original Ashmolean building - when the museum was first built, it was large enough to have laboratories and lecture rooms that fulfilled the University requirements for teaching natural sciences.
Then during the 19th century, many developments happened within natural science, which required an expansion of facilities. This then led in 1860, for Oxford University to open up a second museum, now located where the Ashmolean Museum is as we know it today.
The museum holds approximately 20,000 objects and the collection itself holds a special place in the study of the history of science. One of the most iconic items in the museum is Einstein's blackboard (which we explored in our famous Oxford alumni article) that he used on the 16th May 1931 in his lectures while visiting the University of Oxford.
Further to Einstein’s blackboard, the museum covers almost all aspects of the history of science. There are objects in the museum that date back to the early 1900s!
If you have an interest in the collection of astrolabes, sundials, and early mathematics instruments, then you certainly won’t be disappointed. But they are not limited to only those objects, they also offer you the chance to see chemistry, medicine and communication objects, which come with their individual histories for you to unfold.
If you are someone that’s eager to uncover the history behind science, you’ll be excited to know that the current collection contains around 18,000 objects from antiquity to the early 20th century. This collection represents all aspects of the history of science - even the University of Oxford uses these materials to teach current students. You could experience this for yourself, as the collection can be viewed by the public.
If you are now planning your visit, this museum is free to visit and open to the public every Tuesday to Friday, visit their website for more information.
5. Weston Library
Photo credit: Experience Oxfordshire
The Weston Library may not be a museum however, it holds a very rich history which has provided many students in the past with in-depth knowledge they wouldn’t have been able to find elsewhere.
Here are the reasons why the Weston library makes it onto our list...
The Weston Library is part of the Bodleian Library, a library known to be one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain, it is only just smaller than the British Library. This Library was first opened to scholars in 1602 - since 1602 the library has expanded slowly, but it has continued its growth in the last 150 years, ensuring it can keep up with the ever-growing collection of books, papers and other materials.
Altogether the library holds over 13 million printed items, including as part of the collection books that were donated by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The building at the time stood at the heart of Oxford’s academic quarter. The reason being was due to its location - it stood close to the school in which lectures were being taught. It, therefore, became the main research library of the University of Oxford; he was able to give the University his priceless collections of more than 281 manuscripts, including several important classical texts.
To many students at the University of Oxford, this library is best known as ‘the Bod’, the building as it is today is still used and loved by many students and scholars from all over the world. The library is also not just limited to books, they also have collections of “pictures, sculptures, coins, medals and even a stuffed crocodile from Jamaica.” (Bodleian, 2021)
What could you expect now? By the 20th century, there had been a noticeable increase in the number of people coming to visit the library, and the number of books had reached well over a million - by 1914 the Bodleian had already reached the million mark.
But by having both the number of visitors and books increase, it puts a strain on the library and having more space becomes a critical point for them to consider. So by 1931, a decision was made to build a new library, which would be able to house 5 million books, have a library department and reading rooms. That has been built and now is located on the north-side of Broad Street - the ‘New Bodleian,’ as it was known back then.
Since this, more recent renovations have taken place. The newer Bodleian building was completely renovated and has been reopened with large public and new academic spaces and has been known as the Weston Library since 2015.
Entries for the library are free, however, you will not be able to borrow any books unless you are a student of the University of Oxford.
If you still want to visit the library and uncover an impressive medieval room which the University used for teaching and as an examination room, why not visit the Divinity School? Not only was this a teaching room, but it has also featured in Harry Potter films including ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ and the ‘The Goblet of Fire.’ To visit Divinity school will cost £2.50 - for more information visit their website.
6. The Story Museum
Photo credit: Arcell
The Story Museum is the youngest Oxford Museum on our list. The museum was founded in 2003 and was originally opened as a virtual museum, but in 2009 they announced that the museum would move into premises at Rochester House, which is located on Pembroke Street.
What makes The Story Museum unique? There is no other place that you would find the Hundred Acre Wood, Narnia and Wonderland in one place. If you are interested in visiting, you can find this Museum based in the city centre of Oxford. They feature 4 different gallery spaces that include “The Whispering Wood, Enchanted Library, Treasure Chamber and Small Worlds” - an enchanting story adventure for budding readers.
Oxford is no stranger to Alice in Wonderland - it is loved by many tourists and locals around Oxford. It was the birthplace from which Lewis Carroll met Alice Liddell and found his inspirations to form the famous Alice in Wonderland story.
The Story Museum plays a big role in making sure Alice in wonderland is not forgotten in Oxford - they coordinate Oxford’s Alice’s Day, which is traditionally held on the first Saturday in July. It brings together the celebration of the first telling of the novel, and the city is transformed, full of Alice in Wonderland themed festivities which include the other museums that we have mentioned in this article such as the Ashmolean Museum, The History of Science, Oxford Botanic Garden and many more.
Aside from Alice in Wonderland and the 4 different galleries they have on offer, they also run workshops and author events highlighting some of their work. One of the most popular workshops that has previously run was a LEGO master builders workshop. So if you want a modernised take on Oxford featuring local artists then I would not hesitate in visiting a magical, and one of the most unusual museums.
Lose yourself in the imaginary world - and let yourself indulge in “how each golden age of storytellers has inspired the next”. To visit this museum will cost £8.00 and as part of your ticket, you will get access to the galleries as well. For more information, visit their website.
Oxford has a vast range of famous museums, and all have a purpose to how they add to the culture and diversity that the city offers. Even if you don’t particularly have an interest in the specific collections of any of the famous Oxford museums mentioned above - visit them to discover the architecture behind them.
We’ve mentioned briefly about the building history behind the Oxford University Museum of Natural History - why not take advantage of the other museums that have a history behind its designs?
Even if you can’t visit these places yourself, find out more information about the buildings and the variety of collected objects over the last 50 - 100 years. Discover something you may not have known before.
Want the opportunity to visit Oxford’s museums yourself?
If you want a chance to see these museums for yourself, at Oxford Summer Courses we give you the chance to not only learn with expert tutors in a subject that interests you the most, but also have plenty of time to soak up the rich cultural history of Oxford. During your summer course, there will be downtime for you to walk into these historical museums yourself.
By joining us next summer, you could be walking into these amazing buildings and seeing them for yourself. It’s never the same feeling looking at these buildings through a screen - take the opportunity to expand your horizons.
Find your perfect course by browsing the subjects we have available, and see what you could be studying in Oxford next summer!
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Want to soak up soak up some history on your next city break? Take a read through our guide to discover the most famous Oxford museums to visit.