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Statutory Address:

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Oxford (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SP 51483 06927


612/5/114A PARKS ROAD 612/6/114A The University Museum and Pitt Rivers 12-JAN-54 Museum (Formerly listed as: PARKS ROAD THE UNIVERSITY MUSEUM)

GV I University Museum of 1855-60 by Sir Thomas Deane (1792-1871) and Benjamin Woodward (1816-1861); abutting to the rear the Pitt Rivers Museum of 1885-6 by T N Deane & Son.

MATERIALS: UNIVERSITY MUSEUM principally of Bath (Box Ground) stone with detailing in Red Bristol sandstone and Hornton Ironstone; tower cornice in Irish Mountain limestone; arch of porch in red Irish Limestone, green marlstone from Hornton and white Italian marble; slabs of Portland stone in the spandrels; Caen stone bases and caps to the arcade. Other materials include cast iron, slates, and 12 x12 inch glass slates. PITT RIVERS MUSEUM of yellow brick with some red stone; slate roof.

EXTERIOR: The main UNIVERSITY MUSEUM comprises a façade reminiscent of a Flemish cloth hall, with side wings which together form three sides of the spectacular glazed hall which houses most of the main exhibits. The façade, in smooth buff ashlar with some banded detailing in reddish-brown ashlar, runs north-south and facing west. It is of two storeys, with triangular dormers and ventilators piercing the grey-green slate roof. At the centre is a tall, three-storey, tower with a steeply-pitched hipped roof; at the base of the tower is the main door. This, and the six bays of windows along the façade to either side (the first-floor windows more complex and regularly spaced than those below), is in an interpretation of the Early English style. About a third of the windows, and the door surround, are richly carved with naturalistic detail executed by the Irish O'Shea brothers and their nephew Edward Whellan (who were dismissed before their work was completed). Set back behind both rear corners of the façade are angular stair turrets with tall, conical, roofs.

The PITT RIVERS MUSEUM, a large pitched-roof hall, is windowless to the north where the wall carries tall, blind, arcades and is pierced by a single, gothic, doorway. To the east it abuts the Human Anatomy building, while to the south the angle between it and the University Museum is infilled by the Pitt Rivers extension and a new staircase (neither included in the listing), both completed c2007.

INTERIOR: UNIVERSITY MUSEUM: The double-volume glazed court, 110 by 110 feet, is divided into five bays by iron columns and the arched roof they support on a A:B:A:B:A rhythm, with the wide central bay being taller than those to either side. The court is surrounded by a two-storey brick-and-stone arcade which provides circulation. Throughout the University Museum, and especially its public spaces, the carved decoration (some again by the O'Sheas, the remainder completed by 1910), the incorporation of geological specimens, and most of all the innovative and highly ornamental cast iron work of the glazed hall (by F A Skidmore of Coventry) form exhibits in their own right. For instance, the stone columns of the arcades, most with the type of stone and its source inscribed on its base, incorporate exhibit and structural component while their capitals, carved with thistles, daisies, ivy and honeysuckle, serve as an encyclopaedia of nature. So too the slender cast-iron shafts whose wrought iron capitals are formed into leaves of palm, oak, chestnut and sycamore. Set against the columns supporting the ground-floor arcade are life-size statues of eminent scientists (identified in Pevsner).

Set around the glazed court are what were originally rooms for professors and students, lecture rooms, a library, stores for collections, a dissecting room, and a porters' mess room. Some of these were originally double height and open to the roof (and in these instances the roof trusses were generally given a decorative treatment), although incrementally since the later C19 these have generally been subdivided horizontally by inserted floors serviced by new staircases. Throughout these rooms there is much rich decorative work: carved and painted woodwork, painted walls and ceilings, door furniture, carved stone fireplaces, and cast iron grates. Of particular note is the upper part (now the Director's Office) of the former Geological Lecture Room with geologically-themed gable-wall murals of 1859-60 by the Revd Richard St John Tyrwhitt (1827-95), vicar of St Mary Magdalen's in Oxford and a friend of Ruskin.

The PITT RIVERS MUSEUM is a gabled building of seven bays with nave and an aisle to either side created by round cast iron piers with decorative trusses. Two galleries, at first- and second-floor level run around the main open hall. Access to the galleries is via a staircase in the south-west corner of the building, while the hall itself is entered via a connecting door from the University Museum. Here, at the front of the museum, there is a shop and a display area inserted in the later C20; these areas are not of special interest.

HISTORY: The University Museum in Parks Road derives from an initiative of 1847 to create a science building and museum of natural history as finally the conservative museum introduced Natural Science to the curriculum. A meeting in 1849 determined that the planned museum should house 'all the materials explanatory of the organic beings placed upon the globe'. The driving forces behind this movement were David Williams, Warden of New College, and Dr Henry Ackland, Professor of Clinical Medicine, the latter a friend of John Ruskin with whom he travelled with Millais to Scotland in 1853, the year when the final part of Ruskin's 'Stones of Venice' appeared. Ruskin's beliefs, in the Gothic style - or rather the Italian Gothic one - and in the supreme influence of the workman's hand and of nature as a source of inspiration, probably influenced the selection of a design by Benjamin Woodward for the museum and its decorative treatment. A site was bought in 1854, and the building went up between 1855 and 1860. As architectural historian Howard Colvin has observed, this was what would today be called a centre for scientific studies and, besides a large area for displaying specimens, provided lecture rooms, laboratories, dissecting rooms and a library.

Attached to the south side of the original museum is the octagonal former Chemistry Laboratory, modelled on the Abbot's Kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey (separately listed). The arcaded link which connects the two is of 1901. Behind the Chemistry Laboratory was the large curator's house; this was demolished in the 1950s.

In 1885-6 the Pitt Rivers Museum was added north-east of the museum to house the collections of the pioneer archaeologist and anthropologist General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers which he had given to the University in 1884. The gift was made on condition that a museum was built to house it, and someone appointed to lecture on anthropology. The architect was T N Deane & Son. It was enlarged in 1907.

SOURCES: J Sherwood and N Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Oxfordshire (1974), pp.280-2; H Colvin, Unbuilt Oxford (1983), 125-34; B Haward, Oxford University Museum: Its Architecture and Art (1991); T Garnham, Oxford Museum: Deane and Woodward (1992); M Bowden, Pitt Rivers (1991); C Murray, Exploring England's Heritage: Oxfordshire to Buckinghamshire (1994), F. O'Dwyer, The Architecture of Deane and Woodward (1997), cap.5; 85-6; A Stanley and C Newall, Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature (2004), 162.

SUMMARY OF IMPORTANCE: The University Museum in Parks Road was built between 1855 and 1860 as a science building and museum of natural history as finally the study of science at Oxford was given importance. Designed by Benjamin Woodward, and probably heavily influenced by John Ruskin, the building comprises a main façade which resembles a Flemish cloth hall with a spectacular glazed exhibition hall behind. Throughout the museum the carved decoration, the incorporation of geological specimens, and most of all the innovative and highly ornamental cast iron work of the glazed hall form exhibits in their own right. Behind is T N Deane & Son's Pitt Rivers Museum of 1885-6, added to house the collections of the pioneer archaeologist and anthropologist General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. Together this forms one of the most significant and carefully detailed museum complexes of the mid-late C19, as well as being a seminal monument to Oxford's scientific awakening.


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This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 22 Apr 2006
Reference: IOE01/15291/03
Rights: Copyright IoE Mr Chris Tresise. Source Historic England Archive
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