It is great to see the recent resurrection and complete redisplay of the Museum of Oxford, now known simply as MOX, after a prolonged near-death experience. When I moved to the city in 2000 the venue was already physically shrinking in its town hall location, where it had occupied the former central library since 1975. It originally opened here as a new branch of the then flourishing Oxfordshire County Museum Service, operated under a service level agreement with the city council.
Like so many local authorities in England, both city and county were in an almost continuous process of restructuring and budget cuts by the late 1990s. When the 21st century dawned, the museum looked shabby and neglected, was under constant threat of closure and seemed unlikely to survive.
Now, thanks to a significant National Lottery Heritage Fund award and partnership funding from Oxford City Council, Arts Council England and a range of trusts, foundations and individual donors, it has undergone a £2.8m refurbishment. After years of uncertainty and gloom, the future of the venue looks bright, and the physical transformation of the museum space in Oxford’s historic town hall, which has tripled in size, is stunning.
Oxford is often seen by the outside world as an exclusive and elitist academic environment centred entirely on the historic university rather than the city as a whole, which is relegated to a supporting role. Its image has been reinforced by popular TV detective series such as Inspector Morse, Lewis and Endeavour, and indirectly by the fiction and films inspired by authors Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, Philip Pullman and JK Rowling, among others.
These are now the popular fantasies and stories that attract tourists and non-academic visitors to Oxford and the university’s Ashmolean Museum and Bodleian Library. Both of these venerable venues, which house internationally significant collections as important as the British Museum and British Library, have made impressive improvements to their visitor facilities in the 21st century.
Excellent though the university’s museums and libraries are, Oxford beyond the university is not represented at all in their displays. The creation of the original Museum of Oxford was an attempt to tell the wider story of the city and its people that exists outside the colleges. It had proved unsustainable in the cash-strapped local government environment of the 1990s, but the Heritage Fund award has now provided a critical boost and the opportunity to do things differently and collaboratively in the future.
Oxford, like Cambridge, is a city with no economic, educational or political consensus. We have two MPs, one Labour and one Lib Dem, surrounded by a deep-blue Conservative county. Conflicts between city and county, and between both universities (Oxford Brookes is the second), run deep. There has often been little cooperation between local and central government over the transport, planning and environmental issues that regularly threaten to swamp the city.
The so-called levelling up agenda has had little impact. Property in Oxford is the most expensive outside London, while parts of the city have multiple social problems.
The University of Oxford is one of the best in the country but symbolises one of the great social divides in the UK. The rapid development of the car industry in Cowley in the 20th century made the motor manufacturer and philanthropist William Morris (Lord Nuffield) the wealthiest man in the country and created a new division in the city between modern industry and the traditional academic life of the colleges. Oxford is still a leader in multiple areas of research and development, both academic and in manufacturing and service industries, but it is also a city of contrasts and continuing conflict.
The new Museum of Oxford cannot overcome these divisions on its own, but it has been created in a spirit of collaboration and inclusion that tells the wider story of the city and its people alongside the university. Most importantly, it gives the people of Oxford a stake in their own story, which is not simply handed down to them in an official version.
The revamped museum does not have the collections or resources at its disposal to rival the Ashmolean, but it has adopted a participatory style and the new displays have moved away from the traditional linear approach tracing local history from Romans to the modern day. It is certainly a break from the museum’s previous dull presentations in hessian-backed showcases that generally lacked residents’ stories and the city’s history beyond college walls.
Open displays have been used where possible and carefully chosen interactives punctuate more traditional interpretation. In one you can dig for archaeological objects in an open sandpit, which is proving wildly popular with children and will require constant sweeping up by the volunteer museum assistants.
A mixture of different media in sound and vision keeps the displays lively without overwhelming the presentation. These also keep the sections focused on personal stories rather than themes without resorting to wordy graphic panels. They are succinct but varied.
My favourite is an ingenious “talking table”, which is the most creative use of digital media I have come across in a museum display. Visitors are invited to choose from a selection of mystery objects, each one encased in
a clear perspex box. When placed on an adjacent large screen table they trigger a short video giving a mini explanation of a story, which might be about anything from the traders in Oxford’s traditional covered market to the development of bus services in the city.
None of the boxes contain original museum objects and it is a lively way of engaging visitors with local storyboards on multiple themes that could easily be changed or adapted.
Even before the new displays were completed, the museum had begun experimenting with co-curation on exhibition topics and stories with community groups. This has given flexibility for the future and will enable the museum to cover stories and themes with low-cost pop-up exhibitions using cheap but professional displays that can be aimed at different audiences to those of the Ashmolean. MOX will also work in partnership with other museums, and arts and heritage providers in Oxford and the surrounding county.
Focus on exhibition design
Two guiding principles served as foundations for our design of the Museum of Oxford – foregrounding the community and celebrating the architecture. Engaging with the public was an essential part of the redevelopment and informed us at every stage.
The museum tells the story of the city and its people in three key themes – community, change and civic pride. Our exhibition design is adaptable throughout, so objects and information can be changed and updated easily. We also created a gallery especially for community groups to make their own shows, allowing the museum to act as host by providing a platform. Here, groups will find cases, digital elements, structures and graphic templates that allow their unique perspectives to shine through, while still maintaining the overall design aesthetic.
You often hear about the importance of the architecture in heritage projects and a building by the Victorian architect Henry Hare is no exception. Lost or hidden details have been made visible again. But we went one step further – we used the grid pattern of the windows to shape the exhibition design. This dovetailing between the building and the stories within has created a holistic and seamless flow. It is as if the light shining through the magnificent windows has allowed the stories of the people of Oxford to take root here and grow.
Simon Leach is the director of Simon Leach Design
The museum hopes its new galleries and spaces will be a hub for the community to learn about and engage with local history in new ways. It includes areas for schools learning and larger gallery spaces for more collection items, interactive displays and community exhibitions, as well as opportunities for family activities and reminiscence workshops.
Mary Clarkson, Oxford City cabinet member for culture, leisure and tourism, has said: “Among such an abundance of museums in the city, the Museum of Oxford is significant in that it is the only one that is exclusively about the people of Oxford. The £2.8m investment has helped re-imagine the museum for a new generation and makes it an important cultural focus for our city and communities.”
The cynical observer might say this smacks of a familiar ploy by local authorities in making local communities responsible for their own museum and heritage developments while simultaneously denying them direct revenue support. But while reduced financial support for all cultural services seems unavoidable in the foreseeable future, it is surely better to accept the benefits of new support from the Heritage Fund and plan for new partnerships and responsibilities.
All museums will have to be managed more flexibly and creatively and this venue has made an encouraging start on a new road. I wish it well.