Hidden Treasure Trail For Oxford

By Graham Spicer | 15 May 2006
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Read on to discover some of Oxford’s rich collections and surprising finds – we hope it inspires you to get out there and visit them for yourself.

a photograph of a metal lantern

The lantern Guy Fawkes' was found with when he was caught red-handed below the Houses of Parliament can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum . Photo Ashmolean Museum

Oxford is the site of Britain’s oldest university (founded towards the end of the 11th century) so it's perhaps not surprising that the city is blessed with many important libraries, galleries and museums.

The Ashmolean Museum, part of the university, is one of the country’s finest museums and is currently undergoing a £50m redevelopment. Along with the largest and most important collection of Raphael drawings in the world and the only significant display of Minoan objects outside of Crete, it has many important and unusual artefacts. Its Stradivarius 'messiah' violin, the best preserved of its kind, is the museum's nomination for the People's Museum.

Guy Fawkes’ Lantern, made of sheet iron, was donated to Oxford University in 1641 by Robert Heywood, 36 years after the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. Heywood was the son of a Justice of the Peace present at Fawkes’ arrest in the cellars under the House of Lords. It could be closed completely to hide the light and it is easy to imagine Fawkes sneaking around with it in the cellars before his capture.

Another lamp used for a very different purpose is the museum’s 13th century hanging mosque lamp. It was made in the time of the Sultan Muhammad ibn Qala’un, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt and Syria from 1294-1340, and bears his name along with a quotation from the Qu’ran: “God it is who prays over you, and his Angles also that He may bring you out of darkness into light.”

photo of a gold glass lamp with arabic writing on it

A 13th century hanging mosque lamp. Photo Ashmolean Museum

Oxford University’s Bodleian Library is full of rare and important books and manuscripts, including the oldest surviving book written completely in the English language.

It is a late ninth century Anglo-Saxon translation attributed to King Alfred, from the original Latin text of Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care. Written out by Alfred’s scribes, it was personalised for its delivery to Waerferth, Bishop of Worcester.

By the time of Percy Bysshe Shelley, writing had developed far from its purely theological or administrative roots and a distinctly secular form of literature had been long established.

Shelley was at the forefront of the 19th century Romantic movement, and spent a few months at Oxford University before being expelled for writing and distributing a pamphlet on atheism.

It took more than 70 years after his death by drowning in 1822 that he was reaccepted into the university fold when his pocket-watch, chain and seals was presented to the Bodleian Library in 1894 along with several other effects, manuscripts and letters. These were augmented in 1946 by a further donation and a more recent acquisition in 2004.

Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein manuscript is also in the Bodleian's collection and is in the running for inclusion in the People's Museum.

photo of a circular golden astrolabe

An astrolabe that belonged to Elizabeth I from 1559. Photo Museum of the History of Science

The Museum of the History of Science is another of the city’s gems and has a wonderful astrolabe that belonged to Elizabeth I. The astronomical instrument was made in London in 1559 by Thomas Gemini, the first commercial scientific instrument known in England.

In Elizabethan times, mathematician John Dee was known for his ‘holy table’, which he claimed let him communicate with angels to discover more about the natural world. The museum has a 17th century marble copy that belonged to the then-famous astrologer William Lilly.

Perhaps the most famous scientists of all time, Albert Einstein, presented a lecture on his theory of relativity in Oxford on May 16 1931 – his chalked equations are preserved on the blackboard he used and displayed at the museum.

Another example of Oxford’s scientific eminence is shown by Howard Florey’s instruments, which helped him to prepare his orginal penicillin culture during the Second World War. Florey developed the means to produce penicillin in bulk, which helped save innumerable lives during the conflict.

The museum also houses the first radio broadcast microphone, designed by Marconi and used by soprano Dame Nellie Melba in 1920, which has been put up for nomination to the People's Museum.

photo of a blackboard with lots of complicated equations written on it in white chalk

Einstein's blackboard from a lecture at Oxford in 1931 - complete with his chalked equations. Photo Museum of the History of Science

Blenheim Palace, on the outskirts of Oxford, is home of the 11th Duke of Marlborough and was the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Created a World Heritage site in 1987, it was built between 1705 and 1722 and is one of Britain’s most magnificent country houses, set within 2,100 acres of parkland landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown.

As well as containing the Blenheim tapestry, which narrowly missed out on inclusion in the People's Museum, and important collections of porcelain and paintings, there are a number of other interesting artefacts in the house like the intricate main door lock and key mechanism and magnificent silver centrepiece.

The lock and its key – the Coronet Key – were added to the oak front door in about 1825. Blenheim legend says that they were copied from a lock on one of the royal gates at Warsaw after being admired by the 5th Duke. He is said to have sent British locksmiths to the palace to make these perfect copies.

The solid silver centrepiece weighs more than 50 kilos and graces the Blenheim’s Saloon. Made in 1845, it forms the centrepiece of the state dining table when fully set and features the first Duke of Marlborough on horseback writing the Blenheim Dispatch to Queen Anne, which informed her of his victory at the Battle of Blenheim.

The Duke, along with Dutch allies, defeated a force of French and Bavarians at Blenheim in Germany during the War of the Spanish Succession in August 1704, for which the queen and nation built him Blenheim Palace in thanks.

It also includes an exhibition devoted to Churchill, who was born there on November 30 1874, including his famous Second World War maroon velvet ‘siren’ suit.

The frequency of nighttime air raids during the blitz meant that people would often have to change into warm clothing as they headed for air raid shelters. Siren suits were step-in overalls that many people had ready by their bedsides – Churchill was so fond of his that he often wore it for comfort even when there were no raids.

Churchill’s child locks are also in the exhibition. When he was growing up in Victorian times girls and boys wore similar clothes and would have their hair in ringlets. At about the age of five boys would have theirs chopped – Winston’s locks show us his true hair colour – sandy red.

There are many more venues with fascinating collections to be found in the Oxford area...

The university itself has several museums and galleries including the University Museum of Natural History, the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, Christ Church Picture Gallery, the University of Oxford Botanic Garden http://www.botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk/. The Pitt Rivers Museum houses many important archaeological and ethnographic exhibits.

The Museum of Oxford and Modern Art Oxford are also among the city’s remarkable tally of venues.

Click here to go to the BBC People's Museum website

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The Hidden Treasure Trails have been produced for The Campaign for Museums by Culture24 with support from the Foyle Foundation.

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