♦ Modern or Traditional? Exhibiting Ancient Art at the Ashmolean & Carlos Art Museums

Amy Chadick



Interior view of Egyptian Art Collection at the Michael C. Carlos Museum

Mural from the tomb of Userhet, located in the the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology is located on the campus of Oxford University in Oxford, England. The Ashmolean holds the distinction of being the first university run and sponsored art museum after its creation almost 328 years ago in 1683. It serves as a great resource for students and the general public alike to view, experience, and learn about art with the majority of its collection being, but not limited to, Antiquities and Eastern art. Directed by Christopher Brown, the Ashmolean strives toward connecting the present global world with the ancient past.[1] Across the Atlantic, The Michael C. Carlos Museum is located on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. It boasts the reputation of being one of the Southeast’s leading museums in large collections from the Near East, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the ancient Americas. For about 135 years now, since 1876, the Michael C. Carlos Museum has provided opportunities for Emory students to engage with works of art from the past. Bonnie Speed, the director, wants the Michael C. Carlos Museum to be a place of collection, preservation, and interpretation of art in order to educate and enhance Emory and the community at large.[2]

            Both these university art museums host a wide array of ancient artifacts. The methods in which these institutions display and exhibit works are quite different. The Ashmolean is recognized for its classical and traditional exterior architecture, while setting a modern and contemporary tone in the interior exhibition space. On the other hand, The Michael C. Carlos Museum is designed with a slight contemporary influence in union with more traditional features that flow seamlessly throughout the building. The issue that is presented here is whether or not a modern style best showcases ancient artifacts, or if the traditional route is preferred. There are many things that need to be taken into consideration when making this argument such as the entirety of the museum’s collection, the mission statements of the museum, and the audience that the museum is trying to reach. By comparing these elements, the decision of whether or not which style of exhibition works can be observed and analyzed.

            The Ashmolean is based on two ancient collections including works originally from the University Art Collection which were housed in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University and the old Ashmolean Museum. As a collection that has been accessible to the public, the Ashmolean is the world’s first university art museum and the oldest existing public museum in England.[3] Its permanent collection includes works that are divided into five distinct categories. The ranges of artifacts are dated from the lower Paleolithic to Victorian era. Ancient Egyptian, Near East and European relics are the highlights within the Antiquities collection.[4]

            In addition to exhibiting art, the Ashmolean distributes many books about their collections. In a publication about Ancient Cypriot art, the author brings to light the fact that the museum has the largest collection of artifacts of Cypriot art outside Cyrus. The museum’s interest and support of archaeological work in the Mediterranean area is also underscored and reiterates the museums aim in furthering and providing educational opportunities for its visitors.[5] Another unique feature that distinguishes the Ashmolean is the collection of Scythian art. An ancient nomadic group who lived in Russia during the first millennium BCE, these people eventually migrated into the Mediterranean region and left behind artifacts along their route. The Ashmolean exhibits works that have been found at grave sites including jewelry, silver, bronze, and pieces of pottery.[6]

            The Ashmolean also has a large collection of Eastern art. This has not always been the case though. In 1961, the Department of Eastern Art was created and was very instrumental in the museum’s acquisitions of Asian art. Currently, the Ashmolean has one of the largest collections of Japanese porcelain around the world.[7] In addition to Japanese art, the Ashmolean is host to Indian, Islamic, Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Korean art. Although a large majority of the Eastern art collection are ancient artifacts, the Ashmolean also has contemporary Asian art. Most of the two-dimensional works that the Department of Eastern Art has acquired are contemporary Chinese paintings.[8] The Ashmolean also has a distinctive collection of the largest and oldest cast gallery in the United Kingdom. This gallery consists of statues from Classical Greek and Roman periods. The Ashmolean delights in being able to provide the opportunity for the study and research of Classical models and forms. Another appealing element of the Ashmolean is the collection of coins. The Heberden Coin Room is now one of the leading international coin collections, with particular focus in Greek, Roman, Celtic, Byzantine, Medieval, Islamic, Indian, and Chinese coinages[9].

            Although the Ashmolean strengths are centered on international and old world antiquities, the museum also has a significant collection of Western art including paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Dating from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, the array of works shown in the Ashmolean provides the visitor a wonderful opportunity to connect the Western world of art with international works and see the links between them.[10] The Ashmolean, as stated above, is famous for and deeply rooted in their collection of ancient art. The museum is not known for or thought of as an important site for contemporary art works. However, the museum does have some twentieth century paintings and sculpture. Nevertheless, the Ashmolean did not purchase a single contemporary work during the twentieth century and it was only recently that modern works were acquired.[11] Interests regarding funds within the Ashmolean have mainly gone to classical departments despite names like Picasso, Braque, and Matisse who draw crowds at high volumes. That is why the twentieth century gallery and the works that are housed inside it have solely been provided from generous donations of individuals.[12]


Ashmolean Museum, Photo by: Julian Simmonds, telegraph.co.uk.    

            The first renovations that took place in the Ashmolean occurred in 1845. In this renovation, galleries were added to support the growing collection of paintings and drawings from artists such as Raphael, Leonardo, Peter Paul Rubens, and Claude Lorrain. The Ashmolean was, at the time, pushing to increase its collection even further and as a result more archaeological work was done. In 1894, a new building was added. The exterior architecture that came from this renovation still stands currently, despite numerous renovations that have taken place in the interior of the Ashmolean over the years.[13] In 2009, a new building was added to the already existing complex. This new plan included taking away old Victorian style buildings that were in poor condition. In addition to the building's poor condition that was not aesthetically pleasing, the old layout created confusion for many visitors. 

Ashmolean Museum, Photo by:  Bruce Clarke, flickr.com.    

            Rick Mather, the architect of this endeavor, wanted the new museum built to modern standards and to create the structure using environmentally friendly materials and practices. The new building has six floors and a staircase that ascends up one wall in a zigzag pattern that creates a stunning visual effect. Not only did Mather design a building to house works of art, but he also designed a conservation studio and a new loading bay for the museum. This project was a huge undertaking that took about ten years to complete. Internally, the new layout provides an excellent source of natural light, which steams down from the tall ceiling. Mather planned two major axis that formed a clear path throughout the museum and allowed for a smooth, rational journey through the collections. The Ashmolean hired a master planning and exhibition design group called Metaphor, who is based in London to design new displays and gallery space. They created thirty-two new galleries and the visual layout for each one. Christopher Brown, the director of the Ashmolean, wanted the new design to mirror their new collection approach, “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time.” Metaphor was responsible for integrating this theme in the new construction so there is a coherent flow from collection to collection.[14]

            There are many press releases that praise the new Ashmolean and there are others that say quite the opposite. In the journal Architectural Record, Charles Linn gives his opinion on the renovations. He makes the point that the old Ashmolean reflected the artifacts that were housed within in. Museums often group art works by type and thus stop any connections that could be made because various artwork types are isolated. The Ashmolean’s new theme was to push for visitors to see how the past has affected future cultures and how people can make connections today. Linn applauds Rick Mather on his design by saying, “Mather’s design does an extraordinary job of organizing the collections rationally.”[15] On the opposite site of the spectrum, Nichola Johnson of Museums Journal ponders of issues of openness between the art and the viewer. The design seems to reflect on how the visitor reacts within the space instead of how the art works within the gallery. She makes the note of how the newer architecture seems to contrast with the remaining traditional building and how it creates a distant effect. She does praise how the galleries are set up so that connections can be made between various cultures.[16]

            Emory University’s art collection can be traced back to 1876 when a small museum was set up to house the artifacts. As Emory grew over the years, so did the museum. In 1919, the Michael C. Carlos Museum was officially founded. The Carlos Museum is named after Atlanta philanthropist, Michael C. Carlos who over twenty years donated almost twenty million dollars to the museum. The Carlos Museum houses artifacts that range from Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern, Greek and Roman, Ancient American, African, and Asian cultures. In addition to those ancient works, they have a collection of “Works on Paper,” which include about 4,000 prints, drawings, and photographs from Renaissance, Baroque, and nineteenth and twentieth century artists. The collection of Ancient Egyptian and Nubian artifacts covers the complete range of Nile Valley civilization, from Prehistoric times to the reign of Roman supremacy. In 1999, the museum purchased an unidentified mummy and after doing numerous examinations, they found out that it was probably Ramesses 1. In 2003, the Carlos museum returned the mummy to Egypt as a gift of good will.[17]

            The earliest pieces that the museum hosts from Greek and Roman cultures date back approximately to 4000 BCE. The collection includes vases, sculpture, and even one of the earliest bathtubs in the world. The generosity of Michael C. and Thalia Carlos has allowed the collection of Greek and Roman artwork to grow both in size and value, which has lead to praise from the community at large as well as the nation.[18] In the Carlos Museum’s ancient American art collection, all cultures are represented including Mesoamerican, Central American, and the Andean.[19] Coming from a wide region in Africa, the Carlos Museums exhibits a variety of artifacts from Africa as well. This collection includes religious statues, masks, and utilitarian objects.

            The Carlos Museums gives the viewer an excellent array of the diverse cultures found within the African continent that spans across a broad time period and area.[20] Boasting a special interest in South Asia, the Carlos Museum has allocated numerous works of Asian art. Dating from the first century to medieval times, the museum’s Asian art collection displays works of splendor and cosmic beauty. Various seated statues of the Buddha fill the museum space. Images of Buddhists gods and deities are arranged in elegant presentations that unite the figures and their significance.[21] In order to balance the old world with the new world, the Carlos Museum’s collection of works on paper represents the world after primitive civilizations. This collection hosts works from artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt Van Rijn, and Eugene Delacroix. Despite the Carlos Museum’s large quantity of art, they are always working toward expanding their collection.

Michael C. Carlos Museum, Photo by:  Michael Graves. www.michaelgraves.com

            In 1985, massive interior renovations were completed in order to best exhibit the museum’s 16,000 artifacts. Another renovation took place in 1993, which added an additional 13,000 ft to the building.[22] Michael Graves and Associates is the architectural firm that was responsible for the most recent renovations. They wanted to implement a form that allowed for the historic preservation of the area and campus. The museum, which is located in the main quadrangle of the Emory campus, underwent a 40,000 square feet increase in size. In order to keep within the historical context, architects used similar detailing that mirrored that of the original building. This also harmonized with the artifacts that were going to be housed inside the new building. Keeping in mind that the museum needed to have mass and scale to it, the architects used the original building as inspiration. There is a contemporary sculptural element to the exterior façade. However, woven into this form is an elegant adaptation of a classical approach that resides in the columns and linear placement of windows.

            Internally, the gallery spaces use figurative forms and color to embody the artifacts inside the spaces. The use of floor stencils to depict ancient sites within each culture’s specific gallery adds to the cultural impact of the works and simultaneously works as a tool for teaching. Archways and spatial forms accent the artifacts and create a unified flow from wall to art. In the Egyptian art gallery, the lines on the wall mirror that of the stones used to build the Great Pyramids, which helps reiterate the forms and characteristics of Egyptian art and culture. Hemispheres that are recessed in the wall mirror hieroglyphics symbols as you enter the gallery space. On the back of the building, there is a triangle which is directly related to Egyptian culture but it also representative of many ancient cultures and is a form that is used in contemporary architecture as well.

Michael C. Carlos Museum, Photo by:  Michael Graves.

            Both museums are similar in their mission statements. The Ashmolean focuses on making their collections of art and archaeology accessible to the largest public audience. The Ashmolean also works toward providing opportunities for learning and study by developing exhibitions, preserving artifacts, and interpreting their significance in the past and in the future. Research opportunities, also part of the Ashmolean’s mission, encourage the growth of the museum and the furthering of people’s understanding about art and history.  Availability and education are key points around which the museum seems to operate.[23] The Carlos Museum’s mission statement reflects that of the Ashmolean’s, but seems to provide a more inspiring statement of how art and the viewer are connected. The Carlos museum states that they also collect, preserve, and interpret art in order to provide an enriching experience and an opportunity for learning. Fundamental to the Carlos Museums is research and ensuring that all artifacts are properly documented, so their historical significance is made known to all audiences.

            The statement that is most interesting when examining how art should be displayed within a museum’s internal space comes from the mission statement of the Carlos Museum. The Carlos Museum states that, “Through art and artifacts, we learn more about the people and their beliefs and explore these ideas in the context of our lives today.”[24] This statement sums up what an ancient art collection should offer to the viewer. The ability to connect the past with the future is essential in understanding the art and how we relate to it. The Carlos Museum seems to focus on how the art affects the viewer which reflects their aim in educating the public and providing a way to make the art easily accessible. The Ashmolean on the other hand, focuses on making the art available, and through that educational experiences are made, but do not focus on the relation of art to the viewer. When taking both museums’ key aims into consideration and determining which method of displaying art is the best, the Carlos Museum’s architecture reflects its collection accurately. The Ashmolean, which has recently undergone renovations, provides a modern approach to ancient art. This does reflect the new trend in architecture, which appeals to a newer and broader audience, but does not seem to reflect the collection.

            When taking the Ashmolean’s collections into consideration, there is a balance between Western and Non-Western art, which provides the viewer an equal viewpoint of art through the ages and across broad geographies. However, the sums of works that are classical outweigh the contemporary. In order to best exhibit each work, the display and architecture surrounding the art would want to complement the style and type of art on display. Instead it seems as though the direction that the Ashmolean took when deciding to renovate was to have the architecture appeal to the audience instead of the art. Their approach to accessing the art and providing a new innovative way to experience the artifacts was an achievement through their theme, “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time.” The Ashmolean did excel in regard to their mission in that they were trying to make it available to the “widest possible audience,” but fell short when it came to consideration of their art works. Their decision to create an interior space that presents modernity conflicts with the majority of their collection. The Michael C. Carlos Museum’s collection, mainly rooted in ancient and classical pieces, also does an excellent job at adhering to their mission. They expanded their museum in accordance with their mission as well as, it seems, their collections. The style of architecture reflects modern aesthetics, which emphasize their aim to reach a new and broader audience, and which in turn displays art in the museum by creating an interior space that echoes and resonates in the gallery space. Representing an art work in a proper format and design is essential to the understanding of that piece. When the space relates to and creates an unspoken dialogue with a specific work, then a connection is made that could not be achieved any other way. Museums try to create a harmonious stage for their works and objects by balancing design, wordage, placement, and the overall goals of the museum. The Micheal C. Carlos Museum does an excellent job at achieving that balance and providing an exceptional location to view and study objects of the past.



[1] "History of the Ashmolean." Oxford University, http://www.ashmolean.org/about/historyandfuture/. accessed March 3, 2011.

[2] "History and Mission." Emory University, http://carlos.emory.edu/history-mission.

accessed March 3, 2011.

[3] Harrison, Colin et al., The Ashmolean Museum: Completed Illustrated Catalogue of Painting (Oxford: University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 2004), ix.

[4] “Collection Highlights”. Oxford University, accessed March 7, 2011. http://www.ashmolean.org/collections/highlights/.

[5] Brown, A.C. and H.W. Catling, Ancient Cyprus. (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1975), 1-3.

[6] Vickers, Michael, Scythian Treasures in Oxford. (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1979), 5.

[7] Impey, Oliver, Japanese export porcelain. (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2002), 9-11.

[8] Vainker, Shelagh, Chinese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford. (Oxford: University of Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2000), 9-18.

[9] “Collection Highlights”.

[10] “Collection Highlights”.

[11] Eustace, Katharine, Continuity and Change: Twentieth Century Sculpture in the  Ashmolean Museum. (Oxford: University of Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2001), 11-12.

[12] Eustace, Katharine, Twentieth century paintings in the Ashmolean Museum. (Oxford: Ashmolean Museums, 1999), 3-14.

[13] "History of the Ashmolean."

[14] Rick Mather Architects,  “Ashmolean Museum”. accessed March 7, 2011. http://www.rickmather.com/practice#/project/ashmolean_museum

[15] Charles Linn, “Ashmolean Museum,” Architectural Record (2010), accessed March 7, 2011. http://www.rickmather.com/practice#/article/ashmolean_museum.

[16] Nichola Johnson, “Review: The Ashmolean: Oxford,” Museums Journal, http://www.rickmather.com/practice#/article/mj_review_ashmolean. accessed March 7, 2011.

[17] “Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art”. Emory University, http://www.carlos.emory.edu/egyptian-nubian. accessed March 7, 2011.

[18] “Greek and Roman”. Emory University, http://www.carlos.emory.edu/greek-roman-art. accessed March 7, 2011.

[19] “Ancient American Art”. Emory University, http://www.carlos.emory.edu/ancient-american-art. accessed March 7, 2011.

[20] “African Art”. Emory University, http://www.carlos.emory.edu/african-art. accessed March 7, 2011.

[21] “Asian Art”. Emory University, http://www.carlos.emory.edu/asian-art. accessed March 7, 2011

[22] "History and Mission."

[23] “Administration.” Oxford University. http://www.ashmolean.org/about/administration/#sect1. Accessed March 8, 2011.

[24] "History and Mission."


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