1. Portrait of Elias Ashmole by John Riley, (1646–91), oil on canvas. H. 124cm. W. 101cm.

Happy Birthday Elias Ashmole

The world's first public museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford, has opened a new permanent gallery called The Ashmolean Story. It marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the museum's founder, Elias Ashmole (1617–92) who gave his diverse collection to the University of Oxford in 1677, and on display are many of the original artefacts, specimens and details about visitors in the 17th century.

Elias Ashmole (1) was a leading intellectual of his day who studied at Oxford and was elected a founding Fellow of the Royal Society in London in 1661. A true Enlightenment polymath, he was interested in everything – from natural history, medicine and mathematics to alchemy, astrology and magic – all were popular disciplines of his time.

2. Guy Fawkes' lantern, circa 1605, iron and horn. H. 34.5cm.

n founding a new public museum, Ashmole had a vision: to create a centre for practical research and the advancement of knowledge of the natural world, which, in his own words '… is very necessary to humaine Life, health, & the conveniences thereof'. He recommended that the Keeper (head) of the museum should be Oxford's Professor of Chemistry, and the first incumbent was Dr Robert Plot (1640–96), a noted scientist and naturalist.

Evoking the style and atmosphere of the original museum, the new gallery displays objects related to scientific enquiry and the quest for knowledge that would have captivated visitors in Oxford. These include a crystal ball (4), probably used by Ashmole for scrying, or 'crystal-gazing', and making predictions; medical equipment and samples, like kidney stones, apothecary jars and powders; and an array of natural history specimens of exotic animals, fish and birds. One such specimen that clearly confused Plot was a 'Gigantick thigh-bone'. He recognised that it was a real bone but could not identify the species due to its enormous size, and he concluded that it must have belonged to a giant man or woman. It is now known to be part of a femur of a large meat-eating dinosaur, making Plot's illustration the first publication of a dinosaur bone. His tenure at the Ashmolean came to end in 1689–90 when he resigned both his university posts citing an insufficient salary.

3. Portrait of the Elizabethan astrologer and mathematician, John Dee, circa 1594, oil on canvas. H. 76cm. W. 63.5cm.

Ashmole's gift to the University included his own extensive collection of books, manuscripts, coins, medals and antiquities. It also included the celebrated Tradescant family collection of 'Rarities' in South London that had been gifted to Ashmole by John Tradescant the younger. In 1683 Ashmole transferred everything to Oxford from London, sending it by barge in 26 large chests. He specified that the new museum should be housed in a building designed to promote scientific practice. In the original Ashmolean in Broad Street, Oxford, there was a repository for the collections on the first floor; a lecture theatre for natural history on the ground floor; and in the basement was a state-of-the-art chemical laboratory and anatomy room.

Ashmole also wrote down statutes of governance to guide the museum and to help it achieve its aims; the original handwritten document is on display in the new gallery. The 18 statutes include: the establishment of a board of governors; an annual inspection and audit; and the cataloguing of all objects that came into the collection. They also established procedures for the care and security of objects, the admission of visitors; and museum finances – a model for modern museums and galleries the world over.

4. 17th-century crystal ball, polished quartz. D. 3.85cm.

While the collections have grown and shifted to focus on art and archaeology, the purpose of the Ashmolean is little changed today. The museum's main aim remains the preservation and display of the collections for enjoyment and the advancement of knowledge.

The development of the new gallery has allowed the redisplay of important pieces such as Guy Fawkes' lantern (2) which is a favourite with museum visitors. It has also created space to bring works of art, such as Ashmole's collection of portraits of scholars and scientists, which includes the famous painting of Elizabethan astrologer and mathematician, John Dee (3) out of storage.

Dr Xa Sturgis, the current Director of the Ashmolean Museum, says: 'Thanks to the generosity of members of the public, institutional support and private donors, we have been able to mark Elias Ashmole's 400th birthday with this new gallery. It is a celebration of Ashmole's vision and of the role the Ashmolean has played in the development of museums and galleries in this country and across the world.'

• (For further information visit www.ashmolean.org/story-worlds-first-public-museum).
Lindsay Fulcher