Durante muchso años la gran entrada, situada bajo el majestuoso pórtico, estuvo cerrada y había que entrar al museo por un lateral. Ahora la magnífica fachada y el pórtico permanecen intactos, y un nuevo museo de 39 galerías y más de 11.000 m2. ha sido acondicionado detrás.
Oxford familiars over the years have got to know the Ashmolean as a forbidding place. In muscular early Victorian classical style, it was a monument to severe learning and a demonstration of the university´s vast, unsmiling pride. Designed by CR Cockerell, who spread the high seriousness of Sterling throughout the country with his provincial offices of the Bank of England, the Ashmolean presented a windowless Greek wall to Beaumont Street. Relief came only from pilasters.
For many years the symbolic entrance under the massive portico (with its capitals fastidiously copied from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae) was shut. One had to use a side entrance, rather as furtive tradesmen, to access the Stygian and cluttered collections. And while it was not official policy to discourage visitors, the grim Ashmolean certainly intimidated them. To enter was to breach the protocols of a club privée. A visit for pleasure was as gross an intrusion as taking a whoopee cushion to high table in Magdalen.
That has now changed, and rather radically so. The magnificent facade and portico remain intact, but an entire new museum of 39 galleries and about 100,000 sq ft has been built, almost surreptitiously, behind. The architect is Rick Mather, an experienced American Londoner for whom the term `rangy´ might have been coined. His other recent museum work includes the extension to Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Towner in Eastbourne, each rightly admired. The first thing he did was create a proper entrance where a proper entrance should always have been: in the portico. An apologetic door has become a huge double-height glass feature: a tribute to the semantics of welcome and the design of change.
The Cockerell building of 1841-5 was a conceptual oddity: its blustering facade hid only a fillet of space one room deep. It was a Potemkin village of a museum: an authentic, long `gallery´. The only exception was an apse on the axis of the portico, demolished in the 1890s to be replaced by industrial sheds undistinguished in function and form. The removal of these sad sheds created the opportunity for the cheerful new building.
Mather wanted to make sense of Cockerell´s original design. The old apse gave an important illusion of depth which has now been restored. Visitors get a splendid, inviting vista into the new building : dead-ahead on line-of-sight is a distant and vast plaster cast of the Apollo from Olympia. It stands, rising through nearly two storeys, in an atrium which is the central dramatic space and the defining feature of Mather´s polite and well-considered design. It´ a real tutelary deity in what is still an academic department of Oxford University.