In Conversation With…Colin Harrison, Senior Curator Of European Art in the Department of Western Art in the Ashmolean Museum

May 2021

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), View from my Window in Cloudy
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), View from my Window in Cloudy Weather, 1886-8. Presented by Mrs Lucien Pissarro,1950. Ashmolean Museum (WA1950.185)

Tucked within the University of Oxford’s campus, the Ashmolean is one of the oldest and most treasured art and archaeology museums in the world. It offers visitors access to world famous collections, ground-breaking exhibitions, and a rich schedule of programming. Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art in the Department of Western Art, has spent over 25 years at the Ashmolean. First assisting as a freelancer, he was soon part of their team of curators. As he puts it: “[The museum] got so used to seeing my face, they gave me a position supervising the Print Rooms and then a curatorial position in 1995.”

Philanthropy and the generosity of others is intertwined with the museum’s 338-year history. For example, when Camille Pissarro’s (1830-1903) eldest son passed away his family made a series of generous donations to the museum. The upcoming Pissarro exhibition will be the largest collection of his works anywhere in the world. “The Pissarro family never threw away a piece of paper. They bequeathed us an incredible archive that included electricity bills, a note from a cobbler and hundreds of drawings.”

The Huo Family Foundation is supporting this exhibition with a grant of £25,000. “Philanthropy in the arts has an important role to play. Until recently we were vulnerable to potential rainy days. Thankfully, through the generosity of those such as the Huo Family Foundation, we are now able to weather difficult storms like the one we have been facing the past year.”

What is not forgotten is that at its heart the Ashmolean is a university museum. It offers a space where students can interact with an incredible collection of art and cultures first-hand. “We encourage students to volunteer and use [the museum] as a resource. In the Art History Department, the first-year students will write an essay on an object or a building within the university and it’s a fantastic opportunity to get them involved in material art history rather than theoretical art history.”

The Ashmolean’s engagement is not limited, however, to students at the university. “We have an absolutely outstanding educational service department, which has expanded enormously since my time. We offer classes, tutorials and events for everyone”. The engagement team will also try and involve the local community where possible. “We had the most wonderful exhibition of works by a Sudanese artist, Ibrahim El-Salahi, who now lives in East Oxford. He brought his friends and they had traditional celebrations in the exhibition space.” It is this ability to encourage curiosity in Art, and promote interconnectivity between communities, that inspired the Foundation to support the Ashmolean.