Oxfordshire in Fifty Objects

Oxford is known for its museums, including the Ashmolean, the world’s first university museum; the Museum of the History of Science; the Pitt Rivers Museum (a treasure trove of cultural curiosities); and the specialty museum, the Bate Collection of Musical instruments, where you can find one of the most magnificent collections of musical instruments in the world – over 2000 instruments from the western orchestral music traditions from the renaissance, through the baroque, classical, romantic and up to modern times.

50objectsThe Museum of Oxfordshire, however, can be found in Woodstock in a beautiful 18th century house in the heart of the town. You can leave the car in the town car park and even leave the children in the stocks outside! This museum tells the story of Oxfordshire through its family-friendly galleries and exhibitions and provides a good afternoon out whatever the weather. This summer, alongside its regular displays, it also presents ‘Oxfordshire in 50 Objects’ (until 11th September). This exhibition showcases Oxfordshire’s rich heritage through the memories, experiences and interests of the varied people who live and work in the county, with a wide range of community groups and individuals having chosen a single item for display. These are presented alongside the tales of why they were chosen. It’s all about these personal stories, and is a fascinating social history of the people who live in Oxfordshire, their pasts and what the objects from these pasts represent now. And although chosen independently, the sum total of the fifty objects is a surprisingly fair sweep of what’s important here today.

29Uwe Kitzinger, for example, is patron of Asylum Welcome, a charity that helps asylum seekers, refugees and detainees who have fled persecution and danger in their own countries and seek refuge in Oxford and Oxfordshire. He has lived in Standlake since 1956 having first come to the UK in 1939. He was helped to escape from Nazi Germany by a young German officer and gave the officer’s three-year-old son his teddy beat as a thank you. Seventy seven years and three generations of German children later, it was returned to him and is now one of the fifty items in the exhibit, marking the lasting friendship of the Oxfordshire people today with those beyond our borders, whether that’s Wiltshire or further afield.

There’s a model of a canal boat as a reminder of the importance of this to the county’s trading past. It is from Tooley’s Boatyard (an eclectic chandlery between the new Castle Quay shopping complex and the canal) and marks how, in 1769, the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned a canal linking the waterways from Oxford to Coventry to transport coal from the mines to London.

36Military connections are marked by a dress uniform of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry and a propeller from a 1940s Handley plane picked by the Brize Norton Military Wives Choir. More frivolous, perhaps, are the sign from the King Alfred’s coffee shop in Wantage, frequented by John Betjeman, dating from 1937; a miniature garden, fit for a fine doll’s house, dating back to the 1930s and made with heavy lead pieces; a nineteenth century strawberry-shaped red velvet pin cushion from Longworth reminding us of the importance of fruit growing and agriculture to the region; a stunning garnet and gold brooch of around three inches in diameter, dating back from the 7th century Anglo-Saxons, which was unearthed in West Hanney in 2009, and a Magic Roundabout character that was found under the floorboards when Witney’s Cogges Manor Farm was being restored!

OYAP (Oxfordshire Youth Arts Partnership) chose a case of barber’s tools, an intriguing set with ‘Sweeney Todd’ overtones and a touch of steampunk. These, they decided, were a vehicle for expression with hair as a creative medium intertwined with identity, something resonant with today’s youth. There’s a model of a canal boat as a reminder of the importance of this to the county’s trading past.

A spearhead dated from between 450- 699 AD has been chosen from the museum collection by the children at Watchfield Primary School to “remind us that in the past people didn’t have lives as safe as we do today”, there’s Neolithic pottery from as far back as c 3400 BC and, from that same era when hunter-gatherers were settling down to farm the land, there’s striking evidence of this with a human vertebra pierced by the flint of an arrow, an object found in Ascott-under-Wychwood.

There are other museums worthy of a visit in the rest of the county – from the tiny Tom Brown’s School Museum in Uffington to The
Tolsey in Burford and you can see a full listing at oxfordshiremuseums.org