Objects at Oxford

In recent years, the Ashmolean, Oxford’s venerable University Museum, has found itself at the centre of a revolution. Adding to its long and distinguished history of teaching in Archaeology, Classics and History of Art, it has been playing regular host to students and their teachers in, among others, Medieval and Modern Languages, Geography, Oriental Studies, English, Neuroscience, Psychiatry, Business and Theology.

The impetus for this expansion of the Museum’s teaching remit came from the establishment in 2012 of the Ashmolean University Engagement Programme (the UEP), funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. The UEP’s brief was to persuade colleagues that teaching with the objects of material and visual culture could serve as a useful and challenging complement to the texts that are the bedrock of scholarly work at Oxford.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a member of the UEP, as one of three Teaching Curators working alongside a Programme Director and two Museum Assistants. Looking back to July 2012, when we arrived with no previous experience of Oxford, it would have been hard to imagine how eagerly the opportunity we offered would be seized. Together, and in collaboration with colleagues from across the university, we have taught thousands of students in over 25 departments, from first year undergraduates to DPhil candidates. And in all our teaching it is objects, not just texts that take centre stage.

(c) John Cairns

Jim teaching a history undergraduate with a fifteenth-century, English alabaster relief (Image © John Cairns)

Bringing students and their teachers into direct encounters with objects in the museum collections is endlessly exciting. It’s thrilling to put a gilded enamel box from the thirteenth century into someone’s hands for the first time and ask them what they can see. The kinds of inquiry that an object can stimulate and the types of question different students ask of it are just as compelling. A medic might go to the materials of its manufacture, a literature student to the content of its decoration, a theologian to its possible function. Objects are agile, able to be interrogated from any disciplinary standpoint, and their capacity to illuminate teaching and learning across the wide span of university teaching makes the collections of the Ashmolean and Oxford’s other museums a remarkable resource.

The university’s Somerville College has been instrumental in developing this work. Dr Annie Sutherland, Somerville’s Rosemary Woolf Fellow and Tutor in Old and Middle English brought the first ever group of English undergraduates to make their way to the Museum.


Somerville College, Oxford

‘I’ve been taking Somerville undergraduates to object-based classes with Jim at the Ashmolean for four years,’ says Annie.  ‘They have loved the chance to go behind the scenes at the museum and their experiences there have really enriched their work on all aspects of medieval literature.’

The students have taken to working with visual material with alacrity, learning to examine Anglo-Saxon metalwork or a medieval alabaster relief as thoroughly as they might an edition of Beowulf or The Dream of the Rood, making the connection between reading texts and ‘reading’ objects and images. Since Annie’s first exploratory visit in Michaelmas 2012, every Somerville undergraduate in English has been taught in the Museum using objects from Frankish brooches to Vorticist drawings, by way of pilgrim badges and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Somerville Historians have also been in the vanguard of this new approach, considering how objects function as evidence in historical enquiry, regardless of period, and how they can be interrogated. Together, we have looked at Neolithic axeheads, Renaissance bronzes and Roman coins among a host of other things.

Follower of Donatello, The Entombment of Christ, bronze, c.1450-60; Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford

Follower of Donatello, The Entombment of Christ, bronze, c.1450-60 (detail)

Dr Oren Margolis, Lecturer in History, agrees that visiting the Ashmolean is more than simply a pleasurable ‘add-on’ to the student experience, but an important part of a historian’s methodological training.

‘Students always enjoy the opportunity to see art or objects from the periods they’re studying, but teaching in the museum helps them start to view these objects as historical artefacts and sources in their own right.  From my own perspective, it’s particularly important for pre-modern studies, where Oxford’s collections put us in the unique position of really being able to make the period come alive.

I would contend that it’s not only Oxford’s collections that can do this, though, and not only in the context of an undergraduate class.  I’ve run object-centred graduate seminars, public-facing, interdisciplinary events  and supervised the research of individual students. I’ve collaborated with colleagues from Glasgow to Laramie, via London, Boston, New York, New Haven and Philadelphia.  In each instance, the shape and content of the collections is different – but in each, the potential of the collections to stimulate new avenues for teaching and learning is illimitable.

Perhaps most crucially, Senta and I have been teaching teachers.  We have devised and  run a training course for DPhil students and Early Career Academics on the principles and practice of teaching with objects.  Agile Objects aims to show them that the museum is as natural and universal a resource for teaching, learning and research as the library, while introducing them to new ways of thinking about their subjects and embedding object-based teaching at the heart of their own pedagogy – and in the longer term, hopefully, all the university museums where their careers take them.

Jim Harris

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