DR Alexander Sturgis, art historian and director of the Ashmolean Museum, can’t quite believe that five years have passed since he took the top job.

A former director of the Holburne Museum in Bath, from 2005 to September 2014, Dr Sturgis replaced Christopher Brown CBE, director of the Ashmolean from 1998 to 2014.

Now Dr Sturgis is reflecting on key events at the Beaumont Street museum over the past five years and plotting the best way forward.

“It is quite a long time and you wonder where the years have gone,” said Dr Sturgis.

“But a number of key things have happened in that time, including the museum opening seven days a week.”

For as long as people could remember the museum was shut on Mondays but this tradition was dispensed with in February.

READ AGAIN: Legion celebrates different culture as Poppy Appeal 2019 is launched

Dr Sturgis added: “That clearly was a very important step and it is part of a more concerted effort to be as open as possible and appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

“One of our main focuses is thinking about how we serve the local population, as well as the national and international population.

“If you look at Oxford and Oxfordshire as a whole the population is very diverse and I’m not convinced we are serving everyone as we should.”

Oxford Mail:

Dr Sturgis added that he has tried to introduce programmes and exhibitions with a growing emphasis on modern and contemporary art, which should appeal more to a younger audience.

READ AGAIN: Cars vandalised in Wallingford street

Perhaps the most striking example of a move in this direction was the exhibition by American artist Jeff Koons.

The show, jointly curated by Koons and the art historian Sir Norman Rosenthal, features 17 works, 14 of which have never been exhibited in the UK before.

They spanned the artist’s career and include his best-known series including Equilibrium, Statuary, Banality, Antiquity and his recent Gazing Ball sculptures and paintings – in which perfect glass spheres are juxtaposed on reproductions of classic sculpture and paintings.

READ MORE: Re-use and return - John Lewis's new eco-scheme

The show was the result of efforts by a group of art-loving students, members of the Edgar Wind Society – named after the first Professor of Art History at Oxford University.

The undergraduates invited Koons to Oxford after naming him the first recipient of a new contemporary art prize.

Koons accepted, making a day trip from New York to the Ashmolean to receive the honour. He fell in love with the place – and the wheels were set in motion for this groundbreaking show.

“I do think it really works and is convincing, said the director earlier this year

“It makes sense within the Ashmolean and it’s clear why it’s in the museum and how it relates to different parts of the museum.

READ MORE: Civic Society backs blue plaque for park-and-ride

“It also makes a case for Koons who, fantastically successful as he is, is somewhat unfashionable.

“ It feels like a bit of a coup for the Ashmolean too as it’s been very difficult to see his work in the UK and most of these works have not been seen here before.”

The exhibition, which ran from February to June, made headlines and attracted thousands of visitors.

By staging blockbuster exhibitions - which visitors have to pay for - curators hope that visitor numbers will continue to grow.

Oxford Mail:

Raphael: The Drawings, ran from June to September 2017, bringing together 120 stunning works from international collections spanning the brilliant career of the Renaissance genius.

Dr Sturgis said the high visitor numbers that year - 938,000 - were partly due to the ‘great Raphael show’.

It was also the year which saw Britain’s first public museum celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Elias Ashmole.

The following year visitor numbers were slightly down at 882,000 but there were still some impressive achievements.

The two major exhibitions, America’s Cool Modernism and Spellbound, proved huge draws, the former attracting over 62,000 to make it the museum’s third most visited exhibition ever, and the latter attracting 46,000 visitors, including the highest number of first-time visitors of any ticketed exhibition at the Ashmolean.

Dr Sturgis is hopeful that 2019 figures will also look healthy as Last Supper in Pompeii, which runs until January, has proved so popular.

The exciting programming doesn’t stop there.

Young Rembrandt will run at the museum from February 27 to June 7.

This major exhibition will be the first in the UK to explore the early years of the career of the most famous of all Dutch artists, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669).

The exhibition will begin with his earliest known paintings, prints and drawings, made in his native Leiden in the mid-1620s, and ending at the moment he rockets to stardom in Amsterdam in the mid 1630s.

Dr Sturgis said artwork was being sourced from Amsterdam, America and Russia for the forthcoming show.

He added: “It’s nerve-racking (hosting such a high-profile exhibition) but very rewarding.”

As annual visitor numbers hover around the 900,000 mark, the 55-year-old University College graduate is keen to see one million people come through the door one year in the not too distant future.

Oxford Mail:

“We have a target to grow our audience and the one million figures presents itself as something to aim for.

“I think there are lots of different reasons to visit the Ashmolean - the important thing is to ensure that everyone who comes through the door has an exciting experience as possible.”

The father-of-three, who lives in Oxford with his wife Anna, studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London before working at the National Gallery from 1991 to 2005.

In 2005 he was appointed Director of the Holburne Museum in Bath and during his time at Holburne, he oversaw a renovation that included a major extension.

Dr Sturgis said one of the joys of working at the Ashmolean, where a £61m revamp was completed in 2009, is walking through the galleries on a daily basis.

“I’m often stopped in my tracks by what I see,” he added.

While it is difficult to pick out favourites Dr Sturgis can sometimes be found in Renaissance gallery 43 staring at The Virgin and Child with a View of Venice, (known as The Tallard Madonna) by Giorgione (1477–1510) or one of his circle.

Oxford Mail:

When he goes home at the end of the day Dr Sturgis is lucky enough to be able to feast his eyes on more works of art, although they are probably not priceless as they have been created by his mother, sister and brother.

When he left the Holburne Museum, staff presented him with some woodcuts by pop artist Peter Blake and these are among his most treasured possessions.

While he is happy to talk about his achievements at the Ashmolean over the past five years, he is quick to point out he could not have done it on his own.

“I want to thank the staff,” said Dr Sturgis. “Of course one of the joys at the Ashmolean is the collection but another joy is all the brilliant people who work there. The amount of work they do is staggering.”

The director said a key challenge for some members of staff was to make the museum’s collection of artworks and artefacts available online.

“Digitising the collection is vital because that makes it accessible internationally,” he added.

“It’s a big endeavour and we need to move forward with it.”