Illustration by Ipsita Sarkar

On Monday 11th October the Museum of Oxford (MOX) reopened its doors to the public after undergoing a 3-year £2.8 million pound refurbishment project. The central aim of this refurbishment was to increase the connection between the Oxford public and the museum itself. This is evident even from the website page where they enthuse over their excitement of being able to ‘welcome you to your museum’.

This increased sense of intimacy is certainly evident. In the first room there is a new display chronicling how Oxford’s culture was strengthened through the arrival of the Windrush generation. It is a display which celebrates diversity but not in a way that seems hackneyed; the inclusion of ‘ordinary’ objects such as children’s toys or recipe books was combined with personal testimonies chronicling these years. To the observer it is clear that this exhibit celebrates not only Oxford the place, but – more importantly – Oxford the people. There is also an attempt to connect Town and Gown, through a small cabinet examining the relationship between Oxford University and Oxford towns through specific objects. Given just how much of Oxford culture is the University, there is a sense that something is missing. The display itself is very small and doesn’t begin to touch the sides when it comes to chronicling the history of university life in Oxford. However, this isn’t necessarily a huge issue; as one of the museum staff noted, this museum ‘just isn’t aimed at academics’.

Instead, this is a museum with a clear family-orientated focus. To prepare for the opening, the curators spoke to different family focus groups to help shape their vision and it is clear this has been largely successful. The introduction of more interactive elements is probably the most exciting revision since the refurbishment, some of the best being the archaeological pit in Gallery One (a classic museum family favourite) and the collection of replica dresses in a mock clothier in Gallery Two. With the clothier, the curators made the (inspired) decision to design dresses of all different sizes to give the whole family the opportunity to get involved. They have also included a mannequin so that those who do not want to dress up can still have the opportunity to work with the clothes.

Another stand-out feature of the newly designed museum was their ‘library of objects’. This is an innovative piece of technology that I have never seen before (and I have been to an embarrassing number of museums). The observer takes an object from their ‘library’ at the back of the room and places it in a crevice on the stand; after the table illuminates to show different videos on the object’s. It is still in its early stages of development, for example there is not yet an option to skip a video you have watched already, or click on images to learn more, but it will be exciting to see how this ‘library of objects’ is received.

Beyond families, another big aim of the museum’s renovation was to increase accessibility. The introduction of a brand-new lift connecting the museum with its educational spaces was therefore an exciting development. Lots of the exhibits also seemed to have been adjusted with this in mind, the ‘library of objects’, for example, being at wheelchair height. However, there is more that could be done, the second room remains a bit of a tight squeeze.

Now onto the exhibition itself. There is a surprising number of objects and curiosities for a local museum which is just great to see. Stand outs are the Victorian block of ‘frozen lightning’, an early-medieval ice skate and a section of pavement made entirely of knuckle bones. Oxford’s rich and diverse history is charted from the Roman conquest right up to the modern day. Yes, there might some work to be done with regards to how the exhibitions are organised; an absence of chronology or signposting can make it a little bit confusing to follow at times. However, the sudden jumps from Roman to Renaissance do work to capture the sheer scope of Oxford’s history. There is also the promise that the exhibitions can be easily changed and that they were designed with the intention of rotating pieces regularly. A genius idea as it means people will keep coming back. Beyond the museum, there is a downstairs educational space where kids can get hands on with some of the objects (or replicas of those that are more precious). It is light, airy and can easily accommodate a large school group. It is a touch reminiscent of those obligatory primary school local-museum trips every UK child was made to go on but then it is a local museum. I don’t think this is a fault, just a sign I am getting old and jaded!

On balance, the redesigning of MOX has been a great success. Let’s hope it encourages more people to invest some time in immersing themselves in the history of our lovely city. 

Jessica Steadman

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably...