Spent the afternoon in Oxford and much of it in the refurbished Ashmolean, kitted out in bright fluorescence and well appointed signage. The Museum claims to be the oldest in the world and for me has a special significance for holding the Alfred Jewel, a beautiful tear shaped brooch with an enamelled figure at its centre, encircled by a dragon or serpent carrying the inscription AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (Alfred Made me.)
When I was a child the jewel sat concealed in a room of it's own, dark mahogany panels, thick green carpets, heavy purple curtains. It was hidden in a light box and only one person at a time could mount the single step and peer in to see it. It's exclusivity enhanced both its mystery and aura. As an Oxfordshire boy I felt a strange connection. Here was an ancient ornament commissioned by an Oxfordshire King - Alfred was born in Wantage - given a privileged position in the collection. For me a wonderful secret, the unauthorised heart of a magical city. A continuum, a true symbol for the place of my birth. The scholars come and go, the colleges maintain their traditions, but the jewel seemed older, wiser and certainly more mysterious than the University itself.
Now, sadly perhaps, the jewel has been released from its cell and is suspended in a glass box enabling all the visitors to see the elaborate engravings and layerings on both sides. It shares a Medieval gallery with other objects dating from the retreat of the Romans to the defeat of the Armada. Alongside is a quick explanation of it history and a couple of theories as to its purpose. It's accessible, democratic and, to be frank, rather ordinary.
Our educational culture prioritises brightness and clarity over mystery and gloom, but I wonder sometimes if our interactive museums and classrooms don't take some of the joy away from discovery. There's something rewarding about struggling to understand a thing. To have to make some effort to look closely or to be initiated into a new way of thinking. It's the drama at the heart of an educational process. The staging that leads a novice towards encountering something quite unimagined. The transparent museum offers its glories in an enlightened spirit of great generosity, but does the experience value the learner with a sense of achievement or offer an opportunity for genuine revelation?
The jewel still draws me like a magnet and the Ashmolean is a wonderful place for an afternoon mooch about but perhaps rather than assuming it's important for our understanding to bring the past into the present a museum should sometimes be encouraged to reverse the process and retreat into the ambiguous obfuscation of the past. There is much to wonder at back there.