Battered treasures are the best

June 2, 2006

TREASURES OF THE ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford. Until December 31, 2008

What do you buy someone who has everything? It's not a problem that keeps many of us awake at night, but that doesn't prevent newspapers from regularly publishing lists of the latest bits of bling for the jaded plutocrat in your life. A 175-ft yacht with a marble ballroom? About £25 million. An island hideaway to dream up plans for world domination? Some £40 million. A new heart? Price on application.

The assumption behind these lists, of course, is that the rich need shiny new toys in order to feel happier and more fulfilled; a solid-gold Ferrari or some jewel-encrusted knickers will somehow complete the jigsaw puzzle of their lives. But even the most eye-wateringly wealthy, like the rest of us, can find themselves treasuring the sort of object that doesn't carry a price tag. For Citizen Kane it was a sled called Rosebud.

For The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns it was a one-eyed teddy bear called Bobo. For the smirking 12-year-olds at a prep school where I once taught, "treasure" turned out to be a stash of disintegrating porn mags handed down over the years. What they had realised, in their innocently knowing way, is that treasure doesn't have to be diamond-studded or mink-lined. It can be anything that carries memories, visible touches of time.

Oxford's Ashmolean has always been full of such treasures. It was founded in 1683 as Britain's first public museum, and the core of its original collection was a cabinet of curiosities assembled by John Tradescent, in which all kinds of odd and unexpected objects jostled for the viewer's attention: lumps of mortar from the pyramids; "the slough of a locust"; dainty wire-and-gauze Chinese lanterns crusted over with age. Many had quirky stories attached to them, like the huge leather shoes of the aptly named hermit John Bigg, who "grew melancholy" in about 1660 and retired to a cave in Buckinghamshire. Others carried around historical hints in the form of dents and frayed edges: a little girl's embroidered corset, no larger than a doll's dress; some tiny twig sandals, the soles rubbed smooth with use.

Most of these objects have now been put into storage while the museum undergoes a major redevelopment. In their place comes Treasures of the Ashmolean Museum , a small but brilliantly curated exhibition that offers 200 items selected from the galleries closed for refurbishment - a grand tour squeezed into a single room. The only survival from the original cabinet is Guy Fawkes's rusty lantern, which still has the power to provoke rumbles of surprise, but there are plenty of other stories waiting to be discovered. A 7th-century BC relief sculpture from the Palace of Sennacherib shows scorch marks from the time the palace was sacked. A pair of Bronze-Age earrings are still together after almost 4,000 years. An Indian erotic scene depicts coitus that is doomed always to be interruptus.

Yet, despite such artistic and archaeological riches, the object that has lodged itself firmly in my memory isn't part of the official exhibition at all. A small, mangy-looking Disney toy, battered by love, it was being fiercely hugged by a little girl while her parents scrutinised the intricate craftsmanship of the Alfred Jewel. It couldn't have cost more than a fiver. But in her eyes it was clearly the most valuable thing in the room.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a fellow in English at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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