A (Not Very) Brief Guide to Every Museum in Oxford

Most weeks, on Tuesday and Wednesday I have my internship. However, seeing as we are in Oxford, I did not have my internship, so I had entirely free days for the past two days. Fortunately, so did my housemate Rachel, whom I will also be traveling with for spring break, so we decided to try and do all of the touristy stuff these past two days. Except the Ashmolean Museum, that is, because we’re going as a program on Thursday, so look forward to that.

We started at the Museum of Natural History, we got there as it opened, so it was pretty empty initially, although it did fill up. There were also multiple primary school groups that came, which was cute. The first thing we saw was a stuffed American Black Bear that said “Please touch” on the sign (see additional photos), which is not really something I’ve ever encountered before. It had pretty coarse fur, just for reference. The first row of exhibits was mainly related to dinosaurs and animals from around that period, which I really liked because I’m a huge fan of dinosaurs. They also had a dodo, and are known for their dodo because they used to have on display the most well-preserved dodo head in the world, although I don’t believe it’s out on display at the moment. A lot of it was the same kind of fare you find at most natural history museums, although I think this one had a bit more things that you were encouraged to touch, which was kind of cool. I also liked the layout (see photo below) in that it felt very open and that every piece of it was very intentional, like the upper level has pillars and each is made of a different mineral and they’re all labeled. It also allows for a lot of natural light to come in, which adds to the fact that it’s natural history.

There is also a museum attached to the Museum of Natural History called the Pitt Rivers Museum, which was started because one rich English man, Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers, went around and collected things from all over the world and therefore started his own collection, which was made of around 22,000 items and started the collection of anthropological items that now make up the Pitt Rivers Museum. My first reaction to it was feeling overwhelmed, there are just a lot of items in a not very large space, it’s a lot less open than the museum it is attached to and has no natural light coming in, which makes it feel very dark and cramped. Some of the highlights to me were the large collection of model ships, multiple cases of items that were thought to be magical, shrunken heads, a giant totem pole, and a collection of very ornately decorated Easter eggs (see additional photos for all of those). They also had an upstairs exhibit on various body modifications and adornment which was very cool, but we were running out of time so had to go through it pretty quickly. I do highly recommend both museums if you ever find yourself in Oxford. Plus they’re both free, so why would you not.

After lunch, we headed to the Bodleian Libraries. They are a tourist destination in part because they were used in the filming of Harry Potter. The Divinity School was used as the infirmary in the first movie (see photo below), and in the fourth movie, for the scenes of them practicing and learning to dance. The Duke Humfrey’s Library was used even more for filming a lot of scenes in the library at Hogwarts. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take pictures in the actual Library because of copyright reasons, but I promise I did actually get to go there. We then went across the street to the Weston Library to see their exhibit on their “Treasures,” which were a lot of cool documents, including one of the copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio and a page of the Magna Carta (see additional photos for both). There was also an original illustration and page of a story written by J.R.R. Tolkien, but we were not allowed to take pictures of that either.IMG_6765.png

Then we walked down the street a bit to the Museum of the History of Science, which again had a lot of items in it. It was a very cool museum and I think that if I was more into scientific instruments, it would’ve been great. It’s something that I think my dad, who is a physicist and is just generally a science guy, would very much enjoy, but to me, it lacked a through line, as in each room was full of objects with descriptions, but there just wasn’t really any cohesion or story being told with them. There were very cool things like a chalk board with Albert Einstein’s handwriting on it (see photo below) and a coin orrey (see additional photos). However, it felt just like a collection of a lot of cool items, but as more of a display than a museum where you are following along it. IMG_6701.jpg

We walked over to New College from there, which was another Harry Potter filming location. The cloisters there were used in the fourth movie, if you recall the scene that took place under a tree, where Moody transformed Malfoy into a ferret, we got to visit that spot (see photo below). I didn’t really expect to have as much of a reaction to seeing it as I did, but straight when we walked in, it felt familiar and just very exciting to be in a place that something that means and has meant a lot to me was created. So you are not interested in hearing about Harry Potter filming locations, then I’m sorry, but you’re going to hear more about them because Rachel and I are traveling around the UK for spring break and will definitely try to see as many of them as we can. IMG_6712.jpg

Today we had a plan that went a little awry. We intended to start at the Story Museum, which was created because Oxford does have such a long history of storytelling from inspiring Alice in Wonderland to J.R.R. Tolkien to the Harry Potter films to inspiring parts of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and everything in between. Unfortunately though, it was closed, but there was a modern art museum that we didn’t know about down the street. But it didn’t open for half an hour by the time we got there, so we waited in a cafe. The exhibit that was up when we went there was by Lubaina Himid, and centered largely around her experience and identity of being black. Some of my favorite pieces were pages from newspapers that had pictures of black people on them, that she had painted over various parts of (see photo below). It wasn’t a very large museum or exhibit, but I enjoyed it, and like most other museums, it was free.IMG_6720.jpg

Our last self-lead museum of the day was the Museum of Oxford, which was a smidge hard to find because it is actually in the Town Hall.  It was very well set up though, the first room we went into had an interactive aspect that allowed you to swivel a screen that had an image of the room and over each exhibit, there was a button you could click to get a virtual tour of the part of the city that that exhibit was about. Throughout the tour, it would also stop at significant spots and again allow you to move the screen around and find things to click on that tell you more about the spot. One of my favorite exhibits though was in the gallery about the different things that inspired Alice in Wonderland. There was a little station that had headphones and little cards a projector that projected a spot to put the cards on the table (see photo below). Each card would activate a little narration and interview with someone about different things like how C.S. Lewis knew the Alice who inspired the story (her father was a dean of Christ Church College and C.S. Lewis was a librarian) or how the Museum of Natural History inspired a lot of the creatures that were used in the story like the dodo and the hedgehogs and flamingos.

This afternoon, about half of the program did a tour of Christ Church College (the other half had done it yesterday) with one of the tutors and Jonathan, our program director who also had done his grad studies at the College. Christ Church College is home to two more Harry Potter filming locations, the stairs from the first movie that the first years go up before getting sorted (see additional photos) and the Great Hall where the students dined (see additional photos). As well, the posts on the side of the fireplace were said to inspire the part of Alice where she stretches (see additional photos). The walls of the Great Hall are also lined with portraits, including Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, and William Penn, this time the actual founder of Pennsylvania. We also got to see something that apparently most people don’t, but since Jonathan knows the college well, they showed it to us, which is the yard with a small door that inspired the scene where Alice has to shrink to go through the door, and the tree that is where the Cheshire Cat was supposed to sit (see photo below). Then we walked over to Christ Church Cathedral, which was as beautiful as one would expect a cathedral to be. Jonathan also managed to get us into the library (see additional photos), which is not typically open to visitors. It was incredible, there were so many very very old books, that you actually are not allowed to take out at this point. We also couldn’t take pictures of the books themselves, which was interesting. The library also has the hat, from the 1600s I believe, of the man who founded the library, in very good condition. IMG_6740.jpg

After the tour, Rachel and I popped over to the door that is said to have been the inspiration for the door in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (see additional photos). Basically, a lot of the past two days have been spent seeing things that were the inspiration for various works of literature by C.S. Lewis or filming locations from Harry Potter. I’m also very glad that, unlike the US, so many museums are free to the public, it makes them so much more accessible and I don’t think I would have done as much as I have in the past two days had that not been the case. But tomorrow is back to classes and actual work. And I also just want to note that everyone on our program is here in Oxford, so no one was affected by the attack at Westminster, we are all perfectly ok.


Author: iprefershowers

I (she/her/hers) am originally from California, and a third year double majoring in Psychology and Arts Management, a major I created, at Oberlin College. A lot of my interests lie in the arts, at Oberlin I help run a student dance company, stage manage both departmental and student theatre productions, and teach dance classes. I am continuing this interest and involvement while on the Advanced Studies in England program by completing an internship with the Bath Philharmonia in addition to taking three classes in the study of the arts. I am also volunteering at a toddler group and a youth theatre.

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