Oxford: the Museum, the City, the University

As a child, I had a recurring fantasy of London’s Natural History Museum at night. Their work complete and the sun now down, I saw the curators gathering beneath the museum’s vaulted roof to lay a table and feast amongst the exhibits. This idyllic vision was reawakened during Hilary term when I took the Collections/Displays part of the Art Approaches module. My vision’s quiet optimism amused me. As a child, I’d been so overawed by the splendour of such a museum that it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps people who spent every single day working in it might not be as eager to spend their spare time there too. Now, as a cynical nineteen year old, I understand that very few people want to stay in their work after dark. Surely these curators have families or Netflix binges to attend to?

And then I saw a sign in Merton’s Front Quad warning visitors to take care in the rain: the college is often slippery, as it is a ‘collection of ancient buildings.’ Merton’s immense age always stuns me – older than most of the university, older than my hometown of Blackpool, older even than the Aztec Empire! – but this particularly struck me.

Ancient buildings.

Image of Blackpool, Lancashire from the late 1800s.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to go on a school trip to Rome, and spent most of my time gawping at its ancient buildings. Now I live in England’s equivalent but like the curators in my fantasy, I realise I haven’t grown tired of Oxford’s beauty or character. Every walk to the Radcliffe Camera inspires a gasp, every stroll through our gardens draws forth wonder. It took that sign to make me notice, but why do I still get excited?

Art Approaches provided the answer: Oxford is designed to ritually excite.

Interlude On The Pocket At The Back of My Journal and the Emperor Naruhito

I’ve been journaling for a couple of years now. One of my favourite parts is collecting together various debris from across my year and placing it in the pocket at the back of my journal. This means train tickets, business cards, cinema tickets, doodles and sketches, even scorecards for Laser Quest (because I take far too much pride in obliterating the twelve year olds who ended up playing with us).

In my essay on Collection and Display, I was faced with various questions that reminded me of this journal pocket. Why do people collect things? What kinds of people do it? In most cases, I found rich people gathering together artefacts and art pieces to display either as symbolic gestures of their wealth and power or alternatively in order to construct a historical narrative. One example, a French man named Alexandre Lenoir, opened a museum in France in 1795 to preserve the monuments being destroyed in the French Revolution. In time, however, he came to modify the monuments, having them made more medieval if they didn’t fit his picture of the past. He even commissioned new ones for historical figures he found deserving. This process, whether intentional (it was) or not, created a version of French history very different from the one being pushed by the revolutionaries. Where they presented the past as disgraceful, a time of monarchic and ecclesiastical oppression, he showed the past as noble and fair. More crucially, he made that past tangible.

Art Approaches provided the answer: Oxford is designed to ritually excite.

But what has this got to do with my journal, you ask?

When Lenoir was curating, he had to make decisions over what to include. I did the same with my journal. I can’t put every cinema ticket in the pocket (last year, I decided to save my ticket for Avengers: Endgame because I felt like it was a bigger cultural moment than my ticket for SpiderMan), nor can I file away every note or memo I scrawl. The things I include have to be important to me; the inclusion of my notes on Bertrand Russell in 2018 was symbolic of my preparation for Oxford interviews. And going through the collection as a whole, the interviews seem a recurrent theme of my display. I’ve included things from open days, my preparation notes, the business card of my Sixth Form’s interview advisor (more a trophy for survival than a beloved souvenir), even my list to pack for the interviews! I did this because, at the time, the journey to Oxford seemed to be the most significant thing going on that year. From open day to personal statement to application to admissions test to submitted work to interview to offer to place to starting… there was a narrative to follow. And as anyone who’s gone to a museum will know, sequenced stages are a perfect way of conveying information. In this case, the information was anticipation to arrive.

Of course, my journal isn’t designed for public display. Maybe one day my kids will go through it and be confused as to what theatre was – I’ll explain that, back before self-isolation ended the dramatic arts, sometimes people chose to collectively make believe, and they’ll ask me what ‘collectively’ means – but I certainly don’t intend for people to follow a narrative of my life with it. That doesn’t matter. As Carol Duncan wrote in her wonderful essay, ‘Art Museums As Rituals,’ the point of the ritual of collection and display is to ‘confer or renew identity, or purify or restore order in the self or to the world.’ (428) The self is the important part there. The process of ritual doesn’t have to be in a group; it can be done individually.

Take, for example, the Emperor Naruhito.

In Michaelmas, studying Approaches: Anthropology, I made the point in a tutorial that rituals were designed to change other people’s perceptions of you – Naruhito, for example, goes through various ritualistic stages before reaching the Chrysanthemum Throne in order to demonstrate to others that he is the Emperor. And yet, only parts of this ritual are public. Other parts are kept entirely private, known only to the Emperor and a few Shinto monks. What’s the point, I asked my tutor, of doing this ritual in private if you’re trying to change other people’s perceptions? Her answer was that the Emperor in those private moments was trying to change his own perception. Just as a coming of age ritual transforms the individual’s understanding of themselves as much as other’s perception of them, so can any ritual. And that’s what the pocket in the back of my journal is. A ritual of collection which reinforces my own narrativised experience in 2018 to be centred around Oxford.

Maybe one day my kids will go through it and be confused as to what theatre was – I’ll explain that, back before self-isolation ended the dramatic arts, sometimes people chose to collectively make believe

Interlude Ends

One thing you can’t escape in Oxford is tourists. As the sign in Merton’s Front quad testifies, we have enough of them wandering around to need to warn them the pavement is slippery. Going about my daily life, I often find myself held up by groups of tourists stopping in groups outside the libraries I work in. Coming from a seaside town, you’d expect me to be used to tourists, but not like this. Back home in Blackpool, there are specified tourist areas: the majestic Blackpool Tower, the Pleasure Beach amusement park, the often freezing Piers. The tourists explore those as they’re the attraction. In Oxford, it’s different. The whole city is the attraction.

Except, that’s not entirely true.

It’s the university’s colleges and the beautiful architecture that form the attraction. And Oxford is dominated by the presence of the university – there are streets and bridges named after the colleges. There are entire parts of the city closed off to those who don’t attend the university. Radcliffe Square, perhaps one of Oxford’s most iconic sights, is taken up on two sides by colleges, on the third by the Bodleian Library, on the fourth by the university church, and centres on the towering, university-only Radcliffe Camera. There is clearly a division between town and gown, between Oxford’s inhabitants and its students. In 0th week of Hilary, arriving early and thus finding Oxford devoid of most students, I found that it just didn’t feel like the Oxford I knew and loved. And I think that’s the problem. Oxford the town certainly exists, but it isn’t Oxford the tourist attraction. Oxford the tourist attraction is Oxford the university.

The first effect is prestige. Oxford’s academic achievements are, obviously, phenomenal (and there’s a whole other conversation to have around how its awesome wealth factors into both prestige and results) but I think what attracts a lot of people is its splendour and allure. That recurrent phrase ‘It’s a different world’ is a selling point; where else do you have tea in a medieval hall? Where else do you play Dungeons and Dragons in Tolkien’s bedroom? Where else can you capitalise the word ‘Ancient’ and not feel (unduly) bombastic? The association with all this wonder creates an image of Oxford, that city of dreaming spires, which is a little different from any other university experience. Oxford has a romance about it.

The key to this is the tourists. They are the blood that runs through the old golden heart, which keeps everything moving and the colleges alive. The amount of times I’ve wandered through Merton and seen tourists staring up in wonder at different parts of the college where I spend my day to day life is part of the reason why I still feel that wonder. I’m constantly seeing Merton through new eyes, and it makes me appreciate its splendour.

Oxford matriculation: another aspect of Oxford as a museum and university, not a city.
Image courtesy of Toby Ord, Wikimedia Commons. Licence CCA-SA-2.5.

But there is a danger, I think. A chance of arrogance. I have moments of it when I bustle through a crowd of tourists standing outside the Bodleian knowing that I can go where they can’t. Or, when I step through Merton’s porter’s lodge, tourists pay £3 each but I can come and go as I please. This arrogance is dangerous because it risks a bigger problem. During matriculation, we wander around in our sub fusc all day to celebrate having joined the university. The academic uniform is the tradition embracing us! But its reinforcement of that town and gown dichotomy is also problematic, because it divides. When we have more access to the city than the people who live here all year round, you have to find yourself wondering: is it fair?

The academic uniform is the tradition embracing us! But its reinforcement of that town and gown dichotomy is also problematic, because it divides.

That concern is only symptomatic of a much larger problem. When you graduate from Oxford or Cambridge, you get a special postnominal on the end of your name. A Historian at any other university would be Rosemary Peters BA(Hons). At Oxbridge you’d be, respectively, Rosemary Peters BA(Hons) (Oxon) or Rosemary Peters BA(Hons) (Cantab). Why? Surely if the attraction of Oxbridge is its fantastic resources and access to world experts, that’ll be reflected enough in your grades? The attachment of those cognomens is about something more – it’s about conveying the romance, the allure, the prestige of your degree. It’s like including a page number for an academic’s work in an informal opinion piece, just to lend authority to the point you’re trying to make. It’s creating a hierarchy of universities, brazenly announcing that some of them are better than others just on merit of their legacy. And, for obvious reasons, that really isn’t healthy.

Writing this in a student review is not necessarily going to achieve anything. It’s just a way of making the point. I don’t think there’s very much I can do on an individual level – the hoarding of wealth by the colleges but then the demand that visitors pay to enter is a systemic problem rather than one I can fix through a few hastily written paragraphs. But what I can do personally, and what I can implore you to do if you’re an Oxford student or someone applying, is to be the curator of your own experience. Realise why you’re constructing a narrative of anticipation and ask yourself what you’re confirming. Be reverent of the beautiful architecture and all the history, certainly, but don’t let that reverence get in the way of existing here. Like the curators having their feast in the Natural History Museum, you’ve got to love Oxford enough to eat there, but not so much that you feel intimidated. I think returning to that childhood fantasy, the reason it recurred in my head so many times is because I desperately wanted to join the Feast, I wanted to be one of the lucky few who had an opportunity to eat amongst the exhibits. Now, I can’t help but wonder, why must we restrict it to a lucky few? Why can’t the exhibition be open to all?

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