THE end of the Ashmolean Museum’s 330th birthday celebrations is at hand.
The oldest public museum in the world has changed faces many times over the years, but it’s purpose has remained constant: to tell us the stories of our hopes, aspirations and experience. But at least one Ashmolean story has remained hidden… until now.
This is the tale of how one very well-known Oxford person penetrated security, got into the depths of the museum and lifted an extraordinary object.
On Monday when our world-famous museum is closed, the Oxford agent arrived, driven by his accomplice who parked on double yellow lines in Beaumont Street, directly outside the entrance to the Ashmolean. It was not quite a subtle place, but then who knows what goes on in the minds of these people?
He had been visiting an officer of the museum for some years. This was an established pattern, so the security guards knew him well.
They greeted him and let him into the deserted museum.
He didn’t have to sign in. They just shook hands and waved him through into a space where there were no guards, no guides and indeed no lights.
He knew exactly where to go to find his contact deep into the old, un-renovated Ashmolean. He had been to this destination several times, knew the layout like the back of his hand. He had to take the first left after the big Buddha sculpture and open an almost hidden, nondescript door. Only a few people knew it existed.
The Oxford agent walked to the rendezvous with confidence into an increasingly cavernous and black hole. All the other times he had visited were on ‘open’ days, when there had been light.
He turned a corner and walked into complete darkness. He was lost in the pitch-black bowels of one of the most significant collections of art and archaeology in the world, in the days before the mobile phone flashlight application.
Instead of inching forward, he walked headlong into a plinth.
The plinth tilted forward. He realised immediately there was an object on top of the plinth. But what was it and where was it?
When the plinth fell forward the pot fell backward. The Oxford agent couldn’t see this but he guessed it and grabbed at straws by opening his arms and thanks to all his rugby playing and training he caught the pot. It was a minor miracle. He staggered around for a minute cradling the pot, but the Oxford agent knew the deed wasn’t done. He could still hear the plinth rocking back and forth.
It could still come crashing down taking who knows how many other plinths and pots with it. He was looking at a major museum catastrophe here. The plinth wiggled back and forth, tick-tock, tick-tock; the seconds and the plinth counted his trip to tragedy.
Slowly the wild rocking calmed down. The plinth didn’t fall over and the Oxford agent put humpty and dumpty back together again and left the pot on the plinth. But that was not easy.
He had to hold the pot with one arm and feel the bottom of it to understand the size of the pot ring in relation to the size of the stand, because if he didn’t get the positioning just right, the pot could fall off. He was sweating by this time.
He sensed this was a museum minefield and he could walk into another explosion at any time so he got down on his hands and knees and gingerly crawled out of the crisis.
The Ashmolean Museum
Eventually he reached an area that was illuminated by a sky light and stood up, only to confront a passing academic who was extremely alarmed. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I’m visiting a museum officer.”
She was frowning and suspicious, but took him to the right office. Only when his contact greeted him warmly, did she leave.
Usually the contact offered a cup of tea to the agent. This time he was greeted by the judgement: “You look dreadful. White as a sheet. Have you seen a ghost?”
The agent staggered back to the entrance of the Ashmolean and to the car of his wife/accomplice who was fending off parking attendants who wanted to give her a ticket for parking on double yellow lines. He got in and said one word – “Drive.”
A few days later the Oxford agent visited the Ashmolean museum as a normal tourist to find out what he had almost smashed.
It wasn’t easy to retrace those fateful steps, but when he did manage that, he discovered the object he dislodged and then caught was an antiquity – a 3,000 BC Syrian pot – priceless.
Nobody knows, except now you and me and the Oxford agent who still wakes up during the middle of the night in a cold sweat when he dreams about the particular Ashmolean story that almost defined and deformed his life.
Happy Birthday, dear Ashmolean. You may have many objects – Guy Fawkes’ lantern, Pocahontas’ mantle, the King Alfred Jewel – but we may never know all your stories.