Its first building was finished in 1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities that Elias Ashmole gave to the University of Oxford in 1677 and opened its doors on May 24.
Ashmole was an antiquary with a strong Baconian leaning towards the study of nature. His library reflected his intellectual outlook, including works on English history, law, numismatics, chorography, alchemy, astrology, astronomy, and botany. Although he was one of the founding Fellows of the Royal Society, a key institution in the development of experimental science, his interests were antiquarian and mystical as well as scientific. He was an early freemason, although the extent of his involvement and commitment is unclear. Throughout his life he was an avid collector of curiosities and other artefacts. Ashmole donated most of his collection, his antiquarian library and priceless manuscripts to the University of Oxford to create the Ashmolean Museum.
The building on Broad Street, which became known as the Old Ashmolean, is sometimes attributed to the architect Sir Christopher Wren, author of Saint Paul´s Cathedral in London, among other important buildings. The collection included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens, and zoological specimens—one of which was the stuffed body of the last dodo ever seen in Europe; but by 1755 the stuffed dodo was so moth-eaten that it was destroyed, except for its head and one claw.
Ashmole met the botanist and collector John Tradescant the younger around 1650. Tradescant had, with his father, built up a vast and renowned collection of exotic plants, mineral specimens and other curiosities from around the world at their house in Lambeth. Ashmole helped Tradescant catalogue his collection in 1652, and, in 1656, he financed the publication of the catalogue, the Musaeum Tradescantianum. In 1659, Tradescant, who had lost his only son seven years earlier, legally deeded his collection to Ashmole. Under the agreement, Ashmole would take possession at Tradescant’s death. When Tradescant died in 1662, his widow, Hester, contested the deed, claiming her husband had signed it when drunk without knowing its contents, but the matter was settled in Chancery in Ashmole’s favour two years later. Hester was to hold the collection in trust for Ashmole until her death. Ashmole’s determined aggressiveness in obtaining the Tradescant collection for himself has led some scholars to consider that Ashmole was an ambitious, ingratiating social climber who stole a hero’s legacy for his own glorification.
In 1669, Ashmole received a Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Oxford. He maintained his links with the University and, in 1677, Ashmole made a gift of the Tradescant Collection, together with material he had collected independently, to the University on the condition that a suitable home be built to house the materials and make them available to the public. Ashmole had already moved into the house adjacent to the Tradescants’ property in 1674 and had already removed some items from their house into his. In 1678, in the midst of further legal wrangling over the Tradescant Collection, Hester was found drowned in a garden pond. By early 1679, Ashmole had taken over the lease of the Tradescant property and began merging his and their collections into one. The Ashmolean Museum was completed in 1683, and is considered by some to be the first truly public museum in Europe. The collection filled twelve wagons when it was transferred to Oxford. It would have been more, but a large part of Ashmole’s own collection, destined for the museum, including antiquities, books, manuscripts, prints, and 9,000 coins and medals, was destroyed in a disastrous fire in the Middle Temple on 26 January 1679. As a result of the fire, the proportion of the collection derived from the Tradescants was larger than originally anticipated and this misfortune has contributed to criticisms that Ashmole took an unfair share of the credit in assembling the collection at the expense of the Tradescants.
The present building dates from 1841 to 1845. It was designed as the University Galleries by Charles Cockerell in a classical style and stands on Beaumont Street.
Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941), who was appointed keeper in 1884 and retired in 1908, is largely responsible for the current museum. Evans found that the Keeper and the Vice-Chancellor (Prof. Benjamin Jowett) had managed to lose half of the Ashmole collection and had converted the original building into the Examination Rooms.
After the various specimens had been moved into new museums, the “Old Ashmolean” building was used as office space for the Oxford English Dictionary. Since 1924, the building has been established as the Museum of the History of Science, with exhibitions including the scientific instruments given to Oxford University by Lewis Evans (1853–1930), amongst them the world’s largest collection of astrolabes.
The Heberden Coin Room is one of the leading international coin cabinets with particular strengths in the fields of Greek, Roman, Celtic, Byzantine, Medieval, Islamic and Chinese coinages. It also holds collections of paper money, tokens, jettons and commemorative art medals.
The books and publications of the Ashmolean Museum are often used in the identification and classification of coins worldwide as one of the most important references for cataloging.