Crossing cultures and crossing paths at the Ashmolean

Paul Roberts Susan Walker 

Paul Roberts (Rivoira Scholar 1989-90) and Susan Walker (Current Council and FAHL member, and Chair of Publications; Hugh Last Fellow 2012-13; Balsdon Fellow 2006-7) have followed impressive – and impressively overlapping – careers in the museum world. Since Paul’s auspicious appointment at the British Museum 21 years ago, their paths have crossed many times, most recently with Paul taking over the post of Sackler Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology earlier this year following Susan’s retirement. We took this timely opportunity to look back at their numerous ventures, in and outside of the BSR, and to consider the future for the relationship between research and museums. 


When did your professional relationship begin, and how have your paths crossed since? 

SUSAN: As the Senior Curator of Mediterranean Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, I was much involved with Paul’s appointment in 1994. He really knew how to make a Roman pot talk! We have stayed in touch ever since, and worked on several projects such as the exhibition Ancient Faces, and Italy in Europe, a British Museum conference exploring ancient Italy’s links with Europe at the time that modern Italy joined the EU.

PAUL: I remember Susan on my interview panel – bursting into laughter when I suggested the decoration on a Roman pot was in fact a non-slip device for when you’d had a few! Susan is so generous of her time and knowledge. I worked with her on several projects in the BM, in particular researching the beautiful, mysterious mummy portraits for the exhibition Ancient Faces. Oddly our paths have only crossed once in the BSR – she was whizzing round a ping-pong table if I recall correctly! On Susan’s departure from the British Museum I assumed her role and now history repeats itself at the Ashmolean.

How/when did your relationship with the BSR start?

PAUL: I first came to the BSR in 1982 as an undergrad en route to the Roman villa at Matrice – with the wonderful and much-missed John Lloyd.*  Returning in 1986 as an MA student I fell in love with this huge classical building, the great hall, the old library with its ghost stories and, of course, the staff – especially Anna Argeni with her tales of an Abruzzo childhood and her sad love story.  In 1991 I was in the BSR for study season on the Villa at Monte Gelato – under Tim Potter,** again, so very much missed.   This introduced me to people from the British Museum and determined my career.

SUSAN: Though I later did doctoral research at the British School at Athens, I did undergraduate excavation at Gravina di Puglia and Melfi, and worked with John Ward-Perkins on ancient marble on many occasions in the 1970s.

Susan, could you tell us about the recent development of the Ashmolean? What was your vision for the museum and how did you achieve this? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them? Did your time as Balsdon Fellow at the BSR have any impact on this?

SUSAN: The Ashmolean’s display concept Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time was the idea of Henry Kim, then of the Heberden Coin Room. My role was to assess the concept and apply it to the architectural brief. I worked with Henry and chaired a group of curators and administrators negotiating space allocation. I often compare it to chairing the First World War, with enormous battles raging for months over tiny bits of territory, but we eventually reached Versailles…. Challenges included an intellectual divide between the art departments, who valued aesthetics, and archaeology/numismatics, who valued narrative. It turned out that the public didn’t really care about this, they experienced the art galleries as a refreshing change of pace.

John Henry Parker

John Henry Parker became keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in 1870. The BSR Archive holds 2,429 of the photographs professionally commissioned by Parker to document the archaeology and monuments of Rome, which can be found on the BSR Digital Collections website.

There was much resistance to change in the academic community. We dealt with this by presenting them with the long history of the display of their discipline, showing that the redevelopment was the latest of many changes, and they were indeed nostalgic for the Ashmolean they had known and loved as undergraduates.

The biggest problem was the recession, which hit in 2008, over a year before completion. Very difficult for everyone, especially the Director. The consolation was that all those staff we couldn’t keep with us went on to get great jobs on the strength of their Ashmolean experience – and of course innate brilliance!

As Balsdon Fellow at the BSR I organised an interdisciplinary seminar on museum make-overs, with visits to the Centrale Montemartini, the Musei Capitolini, the Vatican and the Crypta Balbi guided by the curators responsible for the recent developments. There is no better inspiration for a project like the Ashmolean redevelopment than to visit other museums and get feedback from people involved in those projects and from the highly experienced and intellectually diverse community of the BSR.

Paul, what will your experience from the British Museum bring to your current role, and what are your plans for the Antiquities Department of the Ashmolean?

PAUL: My 21 years in the BM gave me important experience of caring for, displaying and promoting the collections. The BM, of course, has the resources to lead in best practice in documentation, exhibition and storage.  But the Ashmolean has wonderful collections and people, too; its scale and its university links together with the drive of the new director Xa Sturgis, open up other possibilities, many of which hinge on Italy.

My plans are to build on the amazing achievements of Susan and others.  The Ashmolean is now not just a university, but a national (though outside London!) and indeed an international museum.  The Antiquities galleries have been remodelled and now it is time to channel energy into raising awareness of those collections – getting the university and public in but also getting the collections out there. Research, digitisation and exhibitions are the main keys to this. These are the things I shall facilitate and promote. 

Describe the relationship between museums and research institutions such as universities. What do you think is to be gained from this sort of relationship? 

PAUL: This relationship – not always fully realized – is hugely and mutually beneficial. The Ashmolean, as the art and archaeology museum of Oxford University, is embedded within it, as are many other University Museums.   But all museums, University or not, are resources for higher education. Museum collections graphically illustrate ancient cultures, informing and enhancing university courses and forming the basis of research projects.  Many museums have specialist curators who protect and promote the collections.  Universities are filled with people who study cultures and artefacts – from literary mentions to excavations.  Combining them is an obvious win for both sides.

A recent example is the AshLI (Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions project), an AHRC initiative with the Universities of Warwick, Oxford and the Ashmolean,  making accessible all Roman inscriptions across the Ashmolean’s collections, from formal stone dedications to potters’ stamps. The project involves two other members of the BSR community: Alison Cooley of Warwick University, who currently sits on the BSR’s Faculty of Archaeology, Humanities and Letters, is the Principal Investigator for the project; and Hannah Cornwell, Rome Awardee at the BSR in 2013-14, who is in charge of turning the findings into an open access database.

Another example is a forthcoming exhibition at the Ashmolean on great faiths in late antiquity – arising from a research project ‘Empires of Faith’ between the University of Oxford and the BM. Then there are possibilities for teaching, events, volunteers and let’s not forget funding……

With so much talk of impact, relevance and engagement, the relationship between museums and universities has never been more important.

SUSAN: This can work well; good recent experience includes the Marshall archive at the BSR, excellent for understanding the formation of sculpture collections in the early 20th century. I also know of good recent experience in Oxford with archaeological archives and coins (Roman Economy), and the AshLI project that Paul mentions above. But I think there is scope for much more…

From the John Marshall Collection

Photograph of four pieces of sculpture, taken 1920–1923, from the BSR Photographic Archive, John Marshall Collection.

How has your research, and the direction of that research, been determined by your working in the museum world?

PAUL: I think my fascination with objects is key.  In effect the type of research I do can only be carried out in an artefact-rich environment. Collections which can speak, as in the Ashmolean’s mission statement, across cultures and across time, can tell stories of people and periods, which bring the objects alive.  Fieldwork and research provides important new information which can inform these collections, displays and stories, and for me helps to keep my interest in the subject fresh and vital.

SUSAN: My current research is collections-based, and I am very committed to adding value to connoisseurship by archival research, excavation and materials analysis. During my Hugh Last Fellowship at the BSR I spent five weeks in the Vatican reading correspondence unstudied since the letters were written in 1865-1894. This has allowed me to reconstruct the history of the Wilshere Collection at the Ashmolean, and I have also organised materials analysis of the gold-glass, inscriptions and sarcophagi within it.

What part does the BSR play in your lives today? What have been your recent involvements with the BSR?

PAUL: In my research the BSR is pivotal. Perhaps the most important and rewarding project is the excavation and survey which I co-direct with Helen Patterson and Vince Gaffney on the small town and medieval bishopric of Forum Novum/Vescovio about 1 hour north of Rome. Throughout, the BSR has been extremely generous with its resources, providing the logistical lifeblood of the project.  Most recently in 2014 BSR Director Christopher Smith, and Molly Cotton Fellow Stephen Kay, facilitated a study season in which Helen, Kate Morton (the wonderful BM illustrator) and I processed industrial quantities of pottery up in the Camerone [the BSR archaeology department]. Among the BSR’s many resources is the Library, run in such a welcoming and, efficient way by Valerie Scott and her team. Val and I have just started a new research project on archival material held partly in Rome and Oxford.  So, in the future as much as the past and present, I see the BSR as being at the heart of my research.

SUSAN: I currently serve as Chair of Publications and in that capacity as a member of FAHL and the Council of Management. I really want to help the BSR continue to realise its full potential as a unique centre for multi-disciplinary research with a focus on Italy.



* John held the Balsdon Fellowship at the BSR 1988–9. He was Editor of Papers of the British School at Rome 1991–5, and served on various BSR committees. For his full obituary, see PBSR 67 (1999), pp. viii–xvi.

** Tim was a Rome Scholar in Classical Studies 1966–8. He continued to be closely involved with the BSR, including a period as the Chair of the Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters and as a member of Council. For his full obituary, see PBSR 68 (2000), pp. viii–xix.

Profile images courtesy of: Paul Roberts; Rebecca Zamora, Getty Research Center.