Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum

Diverting Journeys turned five yesterday, which is pretty exciting (though admittedly I didn’t actually do anything to mark the occasion other than eating some oreo cake I made, and I would have done that anyway, but I think it’s still worth a mention). I’m currently up to 340 posts, and the most popular is still (still!) the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, which I wrote in my third month of blogging, so I suppose I could have just stopped there, but I really am glad I’ve been able to have so many adventures over the years, and that a very small (and very awesome, obviously) subset of the population seems to be interested in reading about them, so a big thank you to everyone who has stuck around and still reads (and comments on, especially – I love comments!) my ramblings – I hope you’ll all stick around for the next five years, or however long I manage to keep this thing going for! Now, on with the regularly scheduled post!


I’m pretty lazy most weekends – even leaving my flat can be a stretch, since I’d prefer to just sit on the couch in my jimjams all day, but if I actually take a day off work, I feel like it’s a waste if I don’t do something. So it was that I decided to head up to Oxford for a day last week, and get in some good solid museuming. My Cambridge expedition last year was such a success that it seemed only right to give Oxford its turn. I’d been to the Pitt Rivers years before, and was dying to go back and take some decent photos this time around so I could blog about it (or more accurately, for Marcus to take some decent photos so I could blog about it), and also explore some of Oxford’s other museums, which I hadn’t had a chance to do on my previous visit.


However, I only reluctantly agreed to visit the Ashmolean, despite it being one of the most well-known museums in Oxford (maybe even in all of England), since for a museum person, I am weirdly not that into art and archaeology. But Marcus knows how to sell me on things, and it was the “dish with a composite head of penises” that did it.  Also, the museum is free, which meant I could pop in and just see the things I wanted to see without being compelled to look at all the boring stuff in order to feel I got my money’s worth.


But the dickhead plate, as I chose to crudely refer to it, would have to wait, because there were other objects in the museum that commanded my more immediate attention, by virtue of being on the same floor as the bathrooms (look, I’m not going to use a train toilet unless it’s an emergency, so I needed to pee by the time I arrived), the first being Powhatan’s cloak (yes, THAT Powhatan, as in the father of Pocahontas). I’ve visited Pocahontas’s grave in Gravesend (or at least the spot where she was meant to be buried), and I was also interested to see her father’s cloak (above left). Well, it was more likely just a decorative piece of fabric than a cloak, and may not have belonged to Powhatan, but it did come from one of the tribes in his chiefdom, and was from the right time period, so still pretty cool.


Some other really neat things were in this area too (as you might expect, since it was the highlights of the collection gallery), like the lantern Guy Fawkes carried when he tried to blow up Parliament, and Oliver Cromwell’s death mask. I feel like I should have saved this area for last though (and you’re probably meant to, since the shop is down here as well, but my bladder doesn’t give a crap about my looking around a museum in the correct order), because the rest of the collection paled by comparison, especially in terms of the density of cool stuff.


The Ashmolean is the first university museum in the world, started by Elias Ashmole, who bequeathed his collection of curiosities to Oxford in 1677, which included earlier curiosities from the Tradescants, who were collectors themselves (I’ve been to their grave too – they’re buried in the same churchyard as William Bligh, which is now part of the Garden Museum), and has been greatly expanded in the ensuing centuries, so the collection is varied enough that there were other interesting things to look at, including more recent objects like robes belonging to T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia. You’ll see him crop up a lot in this series of Oxford posts), but I have to admit that the bulk of it was not really to my taste.


Their ceramics collection was sadly nowhere as full of delights as the one at the Fitzwilliam, but I did find a couple of gems, like that James II and Anne Hyde plate, and the Frederick the Great teapot that I originally thought was George III (I just went to see Hamilton (after having to book tickets way back in January 2017), and King George was one of my favourite parts, so I think I have George on the brain (definitely his song, actually most of the songs. And Peggy)).


The ceramics, though mostly disappointing, were exciting mainly because I felt like I was drawing closer to the dickhead plate. And indeed, my hunch would have been correct, had the damn thing actually been there! (Actually, I did anticipate this, mainly because it seems like things I’m most excited to see are never on display, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing.) We were sadly met with this sign in lieu of the plate, which is really irritating, because the website didn’t mention that it wasn’t there, like it did with some of the other highlights, and also the exhibition it was in ended last September, so where the hell is it now? I know Tokyo is a long way away, but even if they’re sending it back via ship, it doesn’t take six months! You would think a museum wouldn’t be content to let one of its star objects just float around in the ether for that long, but I guess this is one of the dangers of having such a large collection – they barely miss something when it’s gone!


Honestly, after that disappointment, I was ready to just leave. I had a lot of other museums I wanted to see, and a limited amount of time, and I didn’t want to waste any more of it in here. But we were in the middle of the museum when we discovered the dickhead plate was gone, so I still ended up looking around on the way out, as you do. Most of it was really boring furniture and art (like early modern European stuff, and despite the fact that I liked early modern history enough to do a Master’s in it, I’m pretty meh about the art, especially shit commissioned by various European minor royals I’ve never heard of. Give me medicine and literature any day over that!), but there was one of Stradavari’s violins, and more excitingly (to me) those charming ducks (or maybe geese, but they look friendly, which is why I’m going with ducks. Geese are jerks).


A lot of the rest of the museum (as you might expect from an archaeology collection) was antiquities, which again, I’m not super enthused by, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the Ancient Egyptians, so we detoured from the path to the exit to check some of it out, inadvertently absorbing some other ancient cultures on the way. That picture of me and the derpy lion is sort of unintentionally hilarious, because of the hand-wrapped-around penis statue looming behind me (it would have been more impressive when it was made, as he would have had a four foot dong). Even though the delightful dickhead plate wasn’t there, at least there was no shortage of penises (penii?) on display, thanks in large part (ha!) to the Greeks and Romans in the hall of statues.


Though there are undoubtedly many treasures here (probably many more than I saw, since I skipped two-thirds of the museum), it just wasn’t really my cup of tea. Except for the really rare objects from historical eras I’m actively interested in (the early modern stuff in the rarities section), most of the rest of these kind of artefacts blur together after a while for me (probably because I don’t understand enough about the cultures they came from, which I admit is my own failing), and I can only take so much before I get cranky and want to leave. They have an exhibition about witchcraft coming up this summer that I might consider returning for (though I’ll gauge the contents online first), but I think I saw enough to get a good sense of what’s here, and know that whilst most people probably love the Ashmolean, it’s not for me (except for the big, grinning sarcophagus below. He can move in with me if he wants to. Don’t know where I’ll put him, but we’ll work something out). 2.5/5. (I know, it’s such a low score for such a big important museum, but I enjoyed it less than all the other Oxford museums, so that’s really all I can give it.)






  1. Happy anniversary to your blog! I’m happy to stick around for another five years. At least I’ve seen a picture of a picture of the penis plate. Interesting …… you have to wonder why that would occur to anybody to make!

    1. Thanks Anabel! I love stuff like that plate, because it shows how little mankind has changed over time. I could definitely see someone making something similar today, though perhaps not quite as, dare I say, elegant? I find it especially funny that one of the penises is pierced!

  2. Happy blogiversary! Keep the museum adventures coming – very happy to have discovered your little corner of the internet. Too bad the museum was a disappointment, but at least you made a sarcophagus friend haha. I’m also not one for art museums, unless there is a fashion exhibition or a material culture angle.

    1. Thanks! I’ve actually made quite a few sarcophagus friends over the years (though they all still live at the museums where I found them, since I haven’t convinced any to come home with me yet) – I think I need a room like the one Jonathan Frakes hangs out in “Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction” to keep them in so maybe they’d be more inclined to leave their respective museums.

  3. Happy 5th Anniversary! I’m endlessly grateful for the WordPress recommendation that introduced me to your site. I can’t remember the name of the first post of yours I read, but I remember it was just some guy’s junky collection of Bakelite phones and stuff and you had to use the washroom. It cracked me up and I was hooked.
    It really is a shame that the dickhead plate wasn’t in residence – but Powhatan’s cloak is really neat! Also, it was kind of a thrill seeing Guy Fawkes’s lantern (which frankly surprised me – I didn’t realize I felt any great connection to him), and I love that adorable grinning (?) camel statue by Lawrence’s robe.
    Now I have to catch up on the fun and read about the Schwartzenegger Museum!

    1. Thanks! I’m grateful for it too, because otherwise I would have missed out on all your hilarious and thoughtful comments over the years! It sounds like the first post you read must have been the Bakelite Museum, which was truly terrible, and I had to use the bathroom which was down some weird alley at the back of the guy’s house (and also there was a dog that somebody had locked into their car in the parking lot the whole time. That place was just terrible for every reason). I guess it’s appropriate that I also talk about having to pee in this post, though I probably talk about it in most posts. I really do just pee a lot (I’ve never actually been diagnosed with anything, I just think I have a small bladder).
      I love the camel too (he was also a “highlight” but one that was actually there) but I do just really like camels generally because of the Just So Stories story that my grandpa used to read me all the time. I even have a tiny camel tattoo because of it, which I may have mentioned before.

      1. Yes! The Bakelite museum – of course!
        And I’m so glad you mentioned the Just So Stories – I was going to mention that detail too. I remember you writing that your Grandpa did the best camel voice in reading them – and I thought “she knows what’s what.” (That probably makes no sense, but it’s how my brain works.)
        I totally relate about the bladder thing – I’m the same way. My boyfriend says I can’t cross a street without stopping to use the washroom first.

      2. Yes, it was the “humph”s that led to the camel getting his hump. My grandpa did a mean “humph”.
        My mother totally still asks me if I have to use the bathroom before we leave whenever we’re together somewhere. It’s like, “Mom, I’ve been successfully not peeing my pants for like 30 years now. If I need the bathroom, I will use it without prompting.”

  4. Hi Jessica – Happy Anniversary! I’m sorry that you missed out on the ‘dickhead’ plate, but I loved the photos of the ducks and the sarcophagus.
    Speaking of penises (penii?), have you ever been to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples? They have a whole collection of erotica, mainly excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum – lots of mosaics, pictures and figures, including a whole cabinet of winged penises!
    Hope the witchcraft exhibition doesn’t disappoint!

    1. Thank you! I was only in Naples once, very briefly, and more than a decade ago. It was the middle of summer, and there was a garbage strike on, so we just walked straight down to the docks and caught a boat to Sorrento. I have been to Pompeii and did enjoy the erotic art there, though the rest of it…not so much. A cabinet of winged penises sounds pretty great though.

      1. They were quite something – I enjoy ancient artefacts as much as the next person. but the giggle factor was high that day! I’d definitely go back to Naples and Sorrento – like you, I last went over a decade ago. It’s a beautiful part of the world, but I don’t blame you for leaving during a garbage strike in the height of summer!

      2. I’ve been back to Sorrento since then – I do like the Amalfi coast, touristy though it is – I just can’t bring myself to give Naples another chance when there’s so many other places I want to see. Maybe someday!

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