The Ashmolean Museum is the University of Oxford’s museum for art and archaeology. It describes its mission as ‘telling human stories across cultures and across time.’ Taking this into account, I find it the ideal place to begin our article series on personhood and personal objects in Oxford’s museums. Personhood is a complex phenomenon, especially when it comes to museum spaces. The question is this: who is seen and presented as an individual and who, on the other hand, is seen as an object to be displayed? This is an issue that haunts both the presentation of human remains (such as mummies) and the presentation of objects (such as clothing or tools) that were held by historical figures.
A number of archaeologists and osteologists have argued that museums and exhibits must practice re-embodiment: the act of reminding curators and audiences that they are dealing with deceased humans and their belongings. The idea is to embed a sense of dignity within the presentation process. Throughout the article I examine two forms of presentation in the Ashmolean Museum, noting how Powhatan's Mantle is recognized as both a North American indigenous clothing item and as a display platform for museum donors. This allows us to see two kinds of personhood that are at play in prominent public museums like the Ashmolean.
Named after English antiquary and politician Elias Ashmole, the Ashmolean is Britain’s first public museum and the world’s second university museum. While its first building was erected between 1678 and 1683 on Broad Street to house the cabinet of curiosities donated by Ashmole to the university, it has only grown exponentially since then. The Ashmolean’s current home was built between 1841 and 1845 and has been extensively renovated and modernized in recent years.
Gallery 2 of the Ashmolean museum is dedicated to the original donation that formed the basis of the museum. Called the Ashmolean Story Gallery, it is located on the lower ground floor of the museum. Part of Ashmole’s initial cabinet of curiosities was gifted to him by the Tradescant family. Thus, the room was previously known as the Tradescant Room. The family had been travelers and adventurers and Ashmole had helped them catalogue the collection. The set up of the story gallery is fairly similar to this original catalogue.
Ashmole’s directions for the museum were for it to be a place of practical and scientific research and this is reflected in how it currently functions as a university museum. One of the central pieces in the gallery is the Powhatan’s Mantle. The piece is a native North American garment from the early seventeenth century and is made of white-tailed deer skin decorated with applied shells. It is associated with Chief Powhatan (also called Wahunsenacawh), the paramount chief of the Tsenacommacah, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Native Americans. There are no other known parallels to this mantle, making it a highlight of the collection.
This brings us to the discomfort that comes with designating a particular set of objects as ‘curiosities’. Initial collections by travelers were often for the purpose of spectacle and displaying weird, exotic objects. This meant pieces and works that weren’t from a European tradition were easily seen as the ‘other’.
As Rowlands, McDougall, and Roberts argue, very often displays of aboriginal and indigenous objects in museums contribute to a distancing between ‘us’ (the civilized, colonizer cultures) and the ‘them’ (indigenous groups that were impacted by imperial practices). With Ashmolean Museum’s Powhatan Mantle exhibit we can see how it is not contextualized much further than being part of the original collection nucleus. There is no historical narrative provided about the genocide of Native Americans and the conditions in which their artefacts were often ‘collected’ (stolen, seized).
Donors and Dedications
Interestingly, the museum’s display acknowledges a very different history in its casing for the mantle exhibit. In 2017, the Ashmolean Museum made a public appeal in order to support a new high-tech display case for this iconic object. Donors were given the chance to inscribe their name or a dedication on the case. This brings us to the politics of donation and veneration.
As a public institution, the Ashmolean is supported by grants, charities and public gifts. It does not charge an entry fee. Museums and similar institutions are often underfunded, and therefore it is not unusual for them to try and make supporting their cause more attractive to donors. Very often this takes the form of offering the right to bestow names and dedications. The Ashmolean Museum is named so to highlight the founding donor, its gallery on Minoan artifacts (Gallery 20) features a portrait of archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and its Ancient Eypt Gallery is known as The Sackler Gallery as a nod to the Sackler family’s donations (note that, while big-time donors to universities and institutions, the Sackler family has been long embroiled in the American opioid crisis and has pleaded guilty to its part).
Thus, very often museums memorialize not just the objects and histories of their collections, but also donors and benefactors. Sometimes this acknowledgement of recent donors or ‘collectors’ who brought the objects to Britain supersedes the recognition of the collection’s original cultural context and historical value.
Even before museums begin to address questions of reparation and the ethics of display, a simpler approach to begin with might be to become more expansive in labelling and dedication practices. While noting the role of donors is important to maintain steady incomes and support historical research and curatorial practices, it is also necessary to acknowledge local and cultural contexts of displays.
In the case of digs and archeological finds, an extension of recognition to local aides and field assistants could be another good beginning point. Very often, collectors and travelers are given credit for filling curiosity cabinets, but the communities that were instrumental in this process - via their craftsmanship, hospitality and often manual support - are not part of the picture (or memorialization portraiture). There are many processes and conversations in place to build better museums. A start to action does not require a radical overhaul, but a step in an inclusive direction.
Written by Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel
This is the first part of a four-part series exploring the treatment of human remains and personal possessions in different museums around Oxford: keep an eye out for future instalments coming soon!
 Ashmolean Org (nd), ‘Ashmolean Museum: About Us’, https://www.ashmolean.org/  McClelland, J., & Cerezo-Román, J. I. (2016). Personhood and re-embodiment in osteological practice. Archaeologists and the dead: Mortuary archaeology in contemporary society, 39-67.  Feola, Vittoria (2005), 'Elias Ashmole and the Uses of Antiquity', Index to Theses, Expert Information Ltd  Wood, M. (1979). ‘The Tradescant Room in The Ashmolean Museum. Newsletter (Museum Ethnographers Group)’, 7, 5–7. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40839012  Ashmolean Org (nd), ‘The Ashmolean Story Gallery’, https://www.ashmolean.org/the-ashmolean-story-gallery  Textile Research Centre (2016), ‘Powhatan’s Mantle’, https://trc-leiden.nl/trc-needles/individual-textiles-and-textile-types/daily-and-general-garments-and-textiles/powhatans-mantle  Rowlands, S., Davidson, I., McDougall, R., & Roberts, D. A. (2011). The Manufacturers: Collection, Display and Aboriginality at the Queensland Museum from the Late Nineteenth to the Early Twentieth Century.  Ashmolean Org (nd), ‘The Ashmolean Story Gallery’, https://www.ashmolean.org/the-ashmolean-story-gallery  Summers, S. L. (2021). Divestment in Times of Change: The Loss of Major Donors in Art Galleries University of Toronto, Canada.