Interview with Dr Alexander Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford
Dr Alexander Sturgis is the Director of the University of Oxford‘s Ashmolean Museum. Dr. A. Sturgis was aappointed to the present position in 2014, as a respected art historian and author of numerous publications, University of Oxford alumnus, with a PhD from the Courtauld Institute in London and with an accomplished career at the National Gallery in London and the Holburne museum in Bath.
The Ashmolean is the first public museum in the UK, and most probably in the world. It was founded by Elias Ashmole in the 17th century, and a building was constructed to store its collection (today it is the Museum of History of Science). The Museum is now situated in Beaumont street (and I can see its back entrance from the corridor in front of my office at the Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford).
It is a pleasure and privilege to have an interview with the head of such an important and influential cultural institution.
Vendi: At the beginning of the interview I refer to the Custodian Principles presentation (available online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziHoDZz6mIE), which is both concise and comprehensive, revealing to the public your aims, principles and priorities as the head of the Museum. As if answering my first question (!), in a remarkably efficient ‘5 minute’ exposition, you explain that your primary concern is to look after the collections and to ensure that they are handed over in the best condition to the future generation. How heavy is the responsibility of a ‘Custodian Director’in one of the most famous and appreciated museums of the world?
Xa: It clearly is incredibly important. I mean, in terms of what we are and what they do clearly you are right. The first thing we have to as museum directors and curators is to care for the collections and to pass them on. And that is not as straight forward as it might seem, obviously everything is deteriorating and degrading, nothing will last forever. and so the challenge really is to strike as sensible balance as possible between preservation and conservation and accessibility. If some of members of the conservation department had their way, everything will be locked up in dark boxes and no one will be allowed to see it … the best way to preserve the collection. But of course that would be ridiculous; and actually the conservation department would think so too. But …. has to be structed. It is a very great responsibility and one that does occasionally keep you awake at night.
Vendi: Preserving the permanent collections comprises not only conservation, but also enhancement and development, including new acquisitions. Elias Ashmole was a keen collector, and he had a huge collection prior to donating it to the University. What were the main pieces of acquisition since you became Director and are you satisfied with the conditions of these acquisitions and the rate at which they are acquired?
Xa: So yes, so The Ashmolean in common with almost every museum, certainly in the UK has very little acquisition budget, so if we want to make a really significant acquisition by buying something, we have to raise that money, and so in my time here we have had two major acquisition campaigns. One was to acquire the painting by Turner of Oxford High Street and the other was to buy a hoard of coins discovered near Watlington in Oxfordshire, from the late ninth century, so the 870, the moment when Alfred the Great was chasing the Vikings out of Wessexs. And so, those were major acquisitions requiring major raising fund effort.
But most of our acquisitions come through legacies and bequests and gifts and then within the UK there is a very important scheme called the Acceptance in Lieu scheme which allows people to leave significant works of art to public galleries and museums in lieu of inheritance tax. So that is another way that really significant things come to the museums, so again, the first acquisition under my directorship was a wonderful painting by Constable of Willy Lott’s Cottage. And that was through the Acceptance in lieu scheme. And so, and actually one of the surprises and excitements in being the director of the museum is quite how many things and really exciting things like are both left to the museum or given to the museum through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme or through the generosity of benefactors and donors.
So the collections do continue to grow in all sorts of ways. Of course, having said that, we need to be disciplined in deciding what we do accept and what we don’t. So we do have a collection strategy, and so we measure potential gifts and legacies against that strategy to see whether it is something that would really enhance the collection and increase.., Either build on a particular strength or occasionally to fill a particular gap in the collection.
Vendi: Right.. Of course. Another essential aspect of collections custody is to communicate their value to the public. In addition to impressive permanent exhibition, the Ashmolean regularly organises special exhibitions and accompanying talks, tours, courses, workshops, and other exhibition events for visitors (e.g. families, young people, etc.). It is obvious that the Ashmolean wants to present to the public. What are the social topics and concerns that Ashmolean wishes to raise awareness about?
Xa: So you are right. Of course, looking after the collection is incredibly important. Enhancing the collection is incredibly important. But the work of the museum, its job is really where the public meets the collection and so to try and work to ensure that that encounter the public and all sorts of different people have with the objects and with the works of art in our collection and to make that as enriching and engaging and stimulating as possible.
And of course, one of the challenges is precisely the variety of the people who walk through the door. Some know lots, some know nothing. Some don’t have any idea what they are going to encounter in the museum, others are specialists coming particularly to look at their particular area of specialism and you somehow need to engage all those people.
So in broad terms what one wants to communicate is that we have here some of the great creations of humanity, from millennia B.C. to almost yesterday. And to celebrate that fact and I think also to draw connections between different cultures, between different times, to suggests actually what is fundamental and important about the human condition. Concerns now are obviously different, but then not completely different concerns people throughout the history, and to draw those connections to suggest commonalities is what museum inevitably do.
And in order to make collections come alive it’s a key element for what we need to do to suggest the relevance of historic objects to people today.
Vendi: The Asmolean is, in your words, the ‘Teaching Museum’, founded and functioning within the University of Oxford and contains the assets which are used in researching and understanding the world. So the Museum is renowned both for its impressive collections, as well as for its research excellence. What are the major current research projects of the Museum?
Xa: We are a university museum and so and I think that brings with it particular obligations around research and around teaching. So… And teaching particularly to the undergraduate and postgraduates within the university. Of course, we teach children of all ages and teach adults of all ages as well, but as teaching is critical but so too is research and so because actually building knowledge about our collections is essential if we are to engage people with them.
So, among research projects that we have at the moment, we have a coin department, Heberden coin room, they are conducting extraordinary an research project on Roman provincial coinage and coin hoards and linking up collections, not only from art collections, but the other great coin collections of the world to create a huge sort of data base that allows one to see through the coin hoards of the Roman empire. How ideas moved how people moved, how economies changed and so it becomes a tool for understanding Roman empire.
Another completely different project for which we’ve just received European Research Council money is looking at colour in the Victorian period. Not only the technological aspect of colours so invention of new dyes and new colours in the second half of the nineteenth century but critically also the symbolic ideas around colour within Victorian literature and how that might reflect or is reflected in the art, decorative art and paintings and sculptures of the period. So, and that is going to lead to a major exhibition in 4 years time.
Vendi: That would be really colourful….
Xa: We hope so. We really excited about the exhibition in 4 years time
And then again, just to give us a sense of the range of the research projects going on, we have a project being conducted by a curator of the ancient Near East who is working with UCL, but also museums in Iraq to look at how, well really to support through research heritage professionals in Iraq to build their expertise and to develop ways in which they can engage their local population with their heritage as a means of protecting their heritage.
Vendi: Right.. That is like a current issue around the world, preservation of heritage…
Xa: Absolutely. And it is clearly a priority and it cannot be done if you like form outside. So this project is all about building both expertise and knowledge on the ground. And with expertise and knowledge comes commitment and comes a sense of ownership of one’s own heritage and therefore a way of preserving it.
Vendi: Teaching and educating is also relevant to your own career: starting in the education department at the National Gallery in London, followed by being the curator of exhibitions and programmes for six years. Among the books you have written are Dan’s angel: a detective’s guide to the language of painting (2003), and (as a co-author) Understanding Paintings: Themes in Art Explored and Explained (2000). Understanding the value of art is essential for its appreciation and protection. After years of personal endeavors in this area, do you find it difficult to make the general public interested in the value of art rather than in the comparatively trivial monetary value of the works of art?
Xa: No, I am not going to be a pessimist about it, no, absolutely not, I mean, so… You are right. My museum career started in the education department in National Gallery and so and really that has coloured my entire career within museums. So my starting point was talking to the public, both school children who came through the door who never came in to a museum before, and also, you know, tourists and again, more informed, more engaged members of the public. And the fact is that once you get any one in front of a painting, if you are there talking to them, you can excite people with these. I mean particularly in the National gallery you can’t really help but excite people with extraordinary things, extraordinary works that they hold, and, of course, here too we have astonishing paintings and works of art from across of all sorts of periods.
I think the challenge is that most visitors don’t have someone with them to talk to ask questions of and as I suggested earlier, everyone has different questions that they will be asking of a work of art, so a challenge for a museum and that’s one we are thinking about, particularly at the moment, is how do you meet the needs of this wide variety of visitors. And one way is through exhibitions and programmes and talks so that one can do different things with the collection. But within galleries too I think we can do better than we do at the moment in terms of thinking about the different needs of different visitors and how we might meet them.
Vendi: Right but just to mention, the Ashmolean’s educational activities are really broad and of huge spectar.
Xa: They are. So I think its absolutely clear if anyone engages with our programme, they have a fantastic time.
Xa: The visitors I suppose we are worrying about a bit at the moment or thinking about is those that come when there isn’t a course, when there isn’t a family study day, or there isn’t activity, how can we make them feel at home and not feel daunted and of course, museums can be daunting places and they can be exhausting places, but they can also be, and one hopes, they will always be fantastically exciting places.
Vendi: As an author you published a number of books, and some of them with intriguing and incentive titles. Rebels and martyrs: the image of the artist in the nineteenth century (2006) for example, I will read this book as soon as I finish my task of publishing this Interview, but can you satisfy my curiosity? Are the 19th century artists more rebels than martyrs, or both equally?
Xa: So that was a catalogue to an exhibition I curated at the National Gallery which was about really the image of the artist and how it developed, particularly in the XIX century. In fact, my original thought for the exhibition was a far broader survey of how artists depicted themselves or were thought about from the Renaissance to the modern day, but as I developed the idea for the exhibition, one became, perhaps inevitably, more and more focused on to the romantic idea of the artist, and this revolutionary idea where suddenly, a lot of things that still are familiar and indeed quite difficult to shake of: the idea of a lonely struggling artist fighting against society, alone in their attics, suffering, misunderstood, and that somehow that is linked to the creative spirit.
This is an idea that is really is born in the early XIX century and in some way one would say it’s dead now, but it actually it doesn’t go away, it is still many people’s idea of the artist is that they need to suffer, they need to be alone, they need to be misunderstood. But of course, if one looks at sort of successful artist of today, I mean we have got a Jeff Koons exhibition here at Ashomlean as I speak, I mean, one can imagine an artist less like that stereotype than Koons. So, it was thinking about that development in the role of the artist and the idea of the artist in the XIX really from the romantic period to the early XX century, where really, the idea becomes more and more extreme, if you like, and by the end in late 1890 and early XX century artists, such as Schiele and Kokoschka, and other are painting themselves as literally as martyrs, or as Christ, and sort of being killed for their art and suffering in their way.
Vendi: Are you preparing a new book or a publication and when can we expect it?
Xa: No, I am not right at the moment. I mean so I have some ideas for exhibitions that I would like to do, but it’s just running a museum of this scale is rather time consuming and so its finding the space in which I might be able to do that, so I am just thinking about that at the moment.
Vendi: It was a pleasure to meet you during the GLAM staff and volunteer party in Ashmolean museum last December. In a relaxed, but inspiring atmosphere, you gave a speech about the achievements of the Museum during 2018 (at one point you became almost short of breath as there were so many topics to mention 🙂 ). Could you choose and point out some of them? Are there any particularly close to your personal focus of interest?
Xa: One of the things I felt when I arrived at the museum was that, although, whenever one met someone from the Ashmolean they talked about the extraordinary history of this museum and its role as arguably the world’s oldest public museum. And yet, within the museum itself, that story was not really embodied and not really discoverable and so one of the things I wanted to do was to create a gallery that told that story more effectively and brought some of those founding collections together and displayed in a way that was not to recreate a sort of cabinet of curiosity that Ashmole originally gave to Oxford, but at least to give a sense of it. And so that we did manage to do last year with the opening of the Ashomlean Story Gallery and so that was something I was particularly pleased to see happen.
Vendi: That’s the one on the minus one of the level of the Museum.
Xa: Yes absolutely. So that was exciting… And then I suppose… Well exhibitions are always exciting. And so in terms of last year, well, both shows were close to my heart in different ways. But the show on American modernism was an idea that I have had really and was able to make happen with the support of people who actually did all the work, particularly the curator Katie Bourguignon but I was really excited to bring those paintings, because I have always loved that period of American art. It’s one that’s not at all in known in this country, it’s very difficult to see paintings by artists such as Demuth and Sheeler and even O’Keeffe and Hopper in the UK and so, it was great to be able to bring these pictures together of that quality and show them here in Oxford.
Vendi: The privilege to stay in a museum after hours is usually available to the staff only. But the Ashmolean organizes various outreach events during which it stays open after hours (e.g. Live Friday, Ashmolean After Hours, etc.), enabling visitors the same museum related ‘excitement’. What are the most engaging outreach projects, and what needs to be taken into consideration when organising them?
Xa: Live Fridays are wonderful events in which thousands of people teem into museum, all sorts of activities take place within the museum, and some of those unquestionably do present some challenges in terms of insuring that the collection is suitably looked after during those events. So, I mean, dance and is always slightly alarming at times, and crowds too, but, again, as I said earlier, the key, I think for museums is to strike a sensible balance between licence and prescription and allowing things to happen and ensuring that they happen in the way that is managed and careful, but not overly prescriptive. But I think that Ashmolean and I hope and I believe strikes a very good balance in that regard.
Question # 10
Vendi: Volunteering is another important aspect in the Museum’s organisation. Volunteers help in organising and conducting various events in the Museum, contributing to its activities and gaining experience. Last year I was a volunteer at Asmolean myself, and I particularly enjoyed participating in a project organised to celebrate the Ashmolean’s acquisition of William Dobson’s painting ‘Group Portrait of Prince Rupert, Colonel William Legge and Colonel John Russell’ on the 400th anniversary of the birth of Elias Ashmole (http://www.arheologija.hr/?p=11634). Is there a possibility of utilizing the potentials of professionally qualified volunteers (archaeologists, historians of art…) by giving them more challenging tasks? Do these references increase chances for future employment in the Museum?
Xa: So volunteers are, well, incredibly important at the Ashmolean and incredibly important I think in the cultural sector and many other sectors it has to be said, throughout the country and one of the key things about volunteers is of course that they are instantly astonishing ambassadors for the museum. They are there, they are here because they love the place and they want to be engaged with it and so if one can harness those levels enthusiasm and communicate that to the visitors as they arrive, I think it’s incredibly powerful and indeed in the previous museum, the Holburne, the entire front of house staff were volunteers and that built into something really quite extraordinary, because the other element of museums and volunteers is ensuring that we give volunteers what they are looking for through their volunteering and I think what your question suggests is that volunteers have very different motivations for volunteering and so I think that one has to be alert to that. And for some its entirely social for others its about sort of giving something back but for others it is still actually developing their skills and developing their CV and developing their employability skills and one has got to recognize it as well.
There is, of course, a balance to be struck and the risk is that one starts as, essentially, exploiting the volunteers, particularly of those with professional skills, that one is using them in roles that should really be doing by the paying members of staff, so that is a balancing act that we are very conscious of, in the museum. One of the projects that we are seeking to develop this year I mean in building on the work we have already done, is to consider how we can use students and early career researches within the museum to actually, how we can support them in developing their skills while at the same time allowing them to deliver a public service through giving talks and lectures around their particular areas of expertise or their particular areas of interest. And this is something that the American university museums do very well, but it needs to be done in earnest and it needs to have the needs, if you like, of those early career researches and post graduates in mind, so that it needs to actually give them skills and can’t just, if you like, ‘exploit’ their skills. And that is something we need to get right.
Vendi: As the director of an archaeological and art history museum, how are you personally involved with the field of archaeology? What are your favourite archaeological artefacts in the Museum?
Xa: My personal responsibilities for archaeology are very limited, except, of course, that I have these extraordinary archaeological collections within the museum. And wonderful curators and others who, some of whom are actively engaged in archaeological excavations both in this country and in Egypt and, indeed, in Turkey, as well So, Yes, I oversee, but I don’t get involved.
In terms of my favourite archaeological objects, I suppose, the most extraordinary collection here, which I was shamefully ignorant of before I arrived is the pre-dynastic Egyptian collection, collections discovered in Hierakonpolis, which are simply astonishing in their extreme age but also, their refinement of some of them. The wonderful little lapis lazuli woman still missing her feet, but it’s just an astonishing little thing.
But early in my time here the other great sort exciting discovery was ostraca, that I didn’t, again shamefully, ignorant of, these little shards of stone, just scribbled writing of the most mundane kind. There is a wonderful one downstairs in the galleries, which explains that two workmen won’t turn up because they have been bitten by scorpions, which immediately takes you straight back to ancient Egypt in that case, in the most amazing way, so because they are so mundane, they are also very immediate.
In your spare time you are also an accomplished magician. When did that interest start? The title of your book (1994) is ‘Magic in art: tricks, perspective, illusions’, but this refers to a symbolic meaning of magic. Is your interest in ‘magic’ related to the recent exhibition ‘Spellbound’, an interesting and much praised exhibition (soon to be reviewed for Arheologija). My favourite exhibit was a mummy of a cat that fell down a chimney while chasing a mouse. But the main exhibit was ‘a witch in a bottle’ from Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. How often do you collaborate with other Oxford and UK museums?
Xa: So.. Lots of questions! I have been doing magic forever. As a child I sort of did tricks and just continued doing it. So it has been a life long enthusiasm and pastime. And obviously, the happy moments when I thought where that interest and my professional life in museums has come together. So at the National gallery I did some magic shows for children introducing them to the paintings and the gallery, doing tricks with or around those paintings. But the Spellbound exhibition was another connection, but clearly, the exhibition was not about the sort of playful tricks that I do. The subject was more fundamental about the need, or our use of magical thinking and looking at the history of magic really from the Middle Ages to, I suppose, today. But, yes, as a subject it’s such an incredibly rich one and clearly my interest in tricks is not unrelated to the richness of the subject of magic.
Vendi: How often you collaborate with other Oxford’s and UK’s museums?
Xa: An enormous amount. You mentioned GLAM earlier, so the Gardens, Libraries and Museums. So there four university museums within Oxford: the Pitt Rivers, the Natural History museum, and the Museum of the History of Science, and so we work together across a whole range of activities. From exhibitions, in the case of Spellbound, the Pitt Rivers was the largest single lender to our show and in many ways, that exhibition was a showcase of some of extraordinary things they have in their collection. We worked together with them and the Botanic gardens and the Bodleian Libraries on a whole range of things. As far as other museums in the UK and beyond, again, we are always working with colleagues. I mean one of the joys in working in a museum is that we, as a sector, we are very supportive of each other and collegial, so every exhibition depends on loans from countless lenders, from many museums, both nationally and internationally, and where possible, we work with museums on exhibitions. So our great Rafael show that we had recently was curated in partnership with the Albertina in Vienna. We’re working on a Rembrandt exhibition, in collaboration with the De Lakenhal in Leiden, and so on.
Vendi: OK, our last question. The Ashmolean displays one artefact originating from Croatia. The magnificent marble head of the empress Livia, found in the village Vid near Metković (Dubrovnik area), was sold to Sir Arthur Evans in the 19th century, and in 2014 it was lent to the Gallery Klovićevi Dvori in Zagreb for the exhibition, to be reunited with the body, as an example of literally complementary international collaboration. Are there other ‘pieces of art’ in the Ashmolean that could possibly be assembled within similar projects of international collaboration?
Xa: That is a very good question. And I don’t know the answer to it. 🙂
But I’m sure there could be. And should be. And I would hope that will be. The other great collection assembled by A. Evans is the Bronze Age Greek collection from Crete, from Knossos. And again, we just appointed a new curator of bronze age Greece and one of the things he will be doing is working with the Greeks and Cretans and to think about how we can use our collections and those that are still in Crete and bring them together probably as the exhibition but could also be done digitally, as well.
Interview vodila: Vendi Jukić Buča
Oxford, 11. ožujka 2019.
Transkripcija: Ada Jukić
Lektura: Berislav Buča
Xa and Vendi. Photo by Olya Baxter-Zorina @ The Ashmolean Museum.