Oxford: a place so dedicated to ancientness that the high street Pret is in a medieval cottage (which may or may not have been a brothel). Even with this in mind, the city probably punches above its weight in terms of museums and galleries. To start with, there are the brilliant and varied collections of Britain's oldest museum, the Ashmolean, which have grown even bigger and better and more full of glass tunnels since its recent refurbishment. There's the cultural tag team of the Pitt Rivers and Natural History Museums, which were some of my favourite places to visit as a kid and have barely lost their magic since. And there's the lovely, funny, inventive Story Museum, which is dedicated to creativity and the imagination and has a nonsense telephone box adorned with fairy lights to prove it.
We've included some history and some staff suggestions of where to visit below. A full list of museums and galleries in Oxford and Oxfordshire is at the bottom.
The University’s main collection of art and archaeology, The Ashmolean, also happens to be the oldest museum in Britain. It originated in a cabinet of curiosities assembled by the Tradescants, a 17th-century father and son duo who were among the first people to make their collection accessible to the public. It later passed into the hands of Oxford University by way of the collector Elias Ashmole on the condition that it would remain available for anyone to see. The building constructed to hold the objects, which may have been designed by Christopher Wren, opened on Broad Street in 1683 and is universally agreed to be the first purpose-built museum building in the world.
Many of the objects from the Tradescant collection are still in the museum today. They including the deerskin, shell-encrusted mantle of the Native American chief Powhatan, Pocahontas' dad. Technically, they also have the only surviving stuffed Dodo in the world, but the remains are so fragile that they have to be kept in permanent storage. Later additions include the Alfred Jewel, a beautifully-preserved Samurai armour and one of the most amazing collections of Egyptian and Minoan antiquities in the world. Since it reopened its doors after a renovation by the architect Rick Mather in 2011 (which you should read about here), there have been twice as many items on display, many of which are in beautiful, light-filled new galleries connected by glass tunnels. The permanent exhibits remain entirely free and should be top of the list for any culture vultures visiting Oxford for the first time.
Although the Ashmolean has long since outgrown its original Broad Street home, the building is still put to good use as the Museum of the History of Science. If you have a spare afternoon, you could do a lot worse than spending it looking at their small but perfectly formed collection of astronomical items. The amazing array of astrolabes (lovely delicate medieval devices for predicting the positions of stars) is apparently the best collection in the world.
Once you're bored of consuming all of human history, pivot to even older things at the University Natural History Museum. Its holdings - which run into millions of specimens - include a gigantic Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton and a stuffed imitation dodo which provided some of the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. The building itself is just as striking as the collection. It's a 19th century neo-Gothic masterpiece featuring a vaulted glass roof (renovated in 2014) supported by soaring cast iron pillars. John Ruskin was apparently so taken with the design that he used to make a daily trip just to admire it.
Venture through the back of the museum and you'll find yourself in another world entirely. The Pitt Rivers Museum is a wonderful, ramshackle anthropology collection that arranges its holdings higgledy-piggledy by type, rather than by chronology or by culture. This approach is apparently unfashionable in the anthropology world, but in this context it works very well, allowing for easy comparisons across space and time. Want to see thousands of musical instruments in a case, spanning thousands of years and multiple continents, or hundreds of types of spear lined up in a row? No problem! While you’re at it, check out the grizzly collection of shrunken heads on the ground floor.
For obvious reasons, Oxford is best known for history and fine art, but there are also a couple of modern galleries which are well worth visiting. The city’s foremost contemporary art space is Modern Art Oxford, an excellent but inconspicuous kind of venue housed in a converted brewery on Pembroke Street. They regularly host performances, film screenings, talks and live music and all their exhibitions are completely free. The café is highly recommended. One-upping MAO in the building conversion stakes is the O3 Gallery, a contemporary art space located inside the 18th-century Oxford Prison building. Its emphasis is on promoting and selling the work of local artists.
The best time for contemporary art fans to be in Oxford is May, when hundreds of local artists in the city and across Oxfordshire open their doors to the public for Oxfordshire Artweeks. There are dozens of exhibitions and they're all completely free free.
Finally, there's the Story Museum, a lovely, family-friendly, creative spot dedicated to promoting children’s literature, creative writing and the power of the imagination. They have a bustling programme of workshops, readings and other events as well as story-related permanent exhibits. To find them, go down St Aldate’s away from the centre of town and turn right onto Pembroke Street. You'll know you're in the right place when you see the multicoloured bunting.
A full list of museums and galleries in Oxford and surrounding areas is below. If you think we've missed something important, please get in touch! Email us at email@example.com and let us know how we can fix it.