The Museum of the History of Science houses an unrivalled collection of historic scientific instruments in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building, the Old Ashmolean on Broad Street, Oxford. By virtue of the collection and the building, the Museum occupies a special position, both in the study of the history of science and in the development of western culture and collecting.
The present collection of the Museum preserves the material relics of past science. As a department of the University of Oxford, the Museum has a role both in making these relics available for study by historians who are willing to look beyond the traditional confines of books and manuscripts as well as presenting them to the visiting public.
The objects represented – of which there are approximately 20,000 – cover almost all aspects of the history of science, from antiquity to the early twentieth century. Particular strengths include the collections of astrolabes, sundials, quadrants, early mathematical instruments generally (including those used for surveying, drawing, calculating, astronomy and navigation) and optical instruments (including microscopes, telescopes and cameras), together with apparatus associated with chemistry, natural philosophy and medicine. In addition, the Museum possesses a unique reference library for the study of the history of scientific instruments that includes manuscripts, incunabula, prints, printed ephemera and early photographic material.
The Museum has a long history. The Old Ashmolean Building itself was completed in 1683 as the world’s first museum open to the general public, housing the collection of Elias Ashmole (1617-92). As well as Ashmole’s collection, the building also encompassed a broad range of activities associated with the pursuit of ‘natural knowledge’. ‘The Museum’ as originally conceived institutionalized a new way of learning about nature that emerged in the seventeenth century, with experimental philosophy being pursued in a chemical laboratory in the basement and lecturing and demonstration taking place in the School of Natural History on the middle floor. Only in 1924 with the gift to the University of the collection of Lewis Evans (1853-1930) did the Museum begin to take on its present role as a Museum of the History of Science, with Robert T. Gunther (1869-1940) as its first curator.