History of the British Collections:

The Seventeenth Century

The Ashmolean Museum was founded as a model scientific institution in 1683, but the history of its collections goes well beyond that date, back to the beginning of the seventeenth century. The 'founding collection' comprised the gift of the Tradescant family collection, called 'The Ark', a collection of 'rarities' comprised of man-made and natural specimens from all over the known world. It was housed in the Tradescant family home at Lambeth and was a very popular attraction, with an entrance fee of 6d being charged. At the same time, Elias Ashmole had himself been collecting his own objects, quite different from the Tradescants, in particular books, manuscripts and coins.

John Tradescant the Elder had started his working life as a gardener; his first major commission was to transform the gardens at Hatfield House. For this he travelled to the Netherlands to collect the plants he had planned for the garden. 'Beasts, fowle, fishes, serpents, coins, shells, feathers etc of sundrey nations' was how one visitor described this early collection. His son, John, also a gardener, collected 'all rarities of flowers, plants, shells etc' whilst in Virginia, America.

Tradescant later acquired such objects as the hawking glove, hawk's hook and stirrups belonging to Henry VIII.

John Tradescant the Younger had drawn up a deed of gift in 1659, leaving 'The Ark' collection to Elias Ashmole, partly since Ashmole put the catalogue into print. John the Younger later regretted this gift and left a will in 1661 leaving the collections to either Cambridge University, or if they turned it down, Oxford University, at his wife's discretion. She was also to be allowed to benefit from the collections, namelyl the entrance fees to 'The Ark', until she died. John Tradescant the Younger died in 1662. Ashmole became aware that Hester was selling off parts of the collection, and took steps to protect both the collections and his inheritance. Eventually the Court of Chancery found in his favour. Ashmole had in the meantime, purchased the house next door to Hester Tradescant and they lived as antagonistic neighbours until her death in 1678.

Musaeum Tradescantianum

Front page of the 'Musaeum Tradescantianum', a catalogue of the Tradescant collection published in 1656

Shortly before she died she relinquished the collections to Ashmole who lost no time in putting into practice a plan that he had long had in mind, which was to bestow the entire collection to the University of Oxford, in a new suitable building.

The foundation stone of the Ashmolean Museum was laid in 1679 by master mason and designer Thomas Wood in Broad Street, between the Sheldonian Theatre and Exeter College. The collections arrived by barge from Lambeth, and the Museum was completed with everything in its place and in special cabinets. Along with the 'rarities', the Tradescant portraits were hung in pride of place. It was opened by the Duke of York in 1683. Sadly, Ashmole was not well enough to attend the opening.

The new building housed the museum displays on the upper floor, the School of Natural History on the ground floor and the chemical laboratory in the basement. All of this was presided over by Robert Plot, the Museum's first Keeper from 1683 to 1690 and Oxford's first Professor of Chemistry.

Plot was instrumental in establishing tightly controlled regulations at the museum, utilising Ashmole's drafted list of 'Statutes, Orders and Rules'. One of these required each member of the 'Board of Visitors' to oversee his part of the collection (the catalogue having been divided up between these visitors and each one being responsible for part of the collection). They were required to carry out a stock-check at their annual visit. Other regulations governed the entry to the museum, only one party at a time. 'The door to be shut until the tour had finished'; and 'An inferior officer always attends, to show the rarities to strangers'. With all his other duties to attend to Plot had the assistance of an Under-Keeper, Edward Lhwyd, who had been recruited from Jesus College and later became Keeper from 1690 to 1709.

From the onset, the exhibits were enlarged by donations and bequests, one of them being Dr Martin Lister who gave a cabinet of shells and Roman antiquities from his native York. He and Lhwyd became good friends and Lister was a valuable suppporter when Lhwyd became Keeper in 1690. The Book of Benefactors listing Martin Lister's donations (1683) is shown on the right.

The Ashmolean's British collections from the seventeenth century are very diverse and include the following examples:

Old Ashmolean Museum

East Front of the Original Ashmolean Building in Broad Street (Engraving by Michael Burghers 1685)

Click to enlarge

Rules and Statutes of the Ashmolean (Click to enlarge)

List of 'Statutes, Orders and Rules' of the Ashmolean created by Ashmole and Plot

Further Information

Further information about the original Tradescant Collection, 'The Ark', can be found at:

Ashmolean Museum Tradescant Collection Website

MacGregor, A. (ed.), Tradescant's Rarities (Oxford:1983)

Impey, O., and MacGregor, A. (ed.), The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Europe (Oxford: 1985)

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Arthur MacGregor
January 2012