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Focus on Renaissance Major partner museums: Oxford ASPIRE

  • Date: 7 August 2012
  • Artform: Museums
  • Area: South East
Oxfordshire Museums Resource Centre, 2012 Oxfordshire Museums Resource Centre, 2012, Benedict Johnson

This January, a museum consortium based in the city of dreaming spires was named one of 16 Arts Council England Renaissance Major partner museums.

Oxford ASPIRE is a partnership between the University of Oxford and Oxfordshire County Council, bringing together some of the country’s most impressive museums.  These include the Ashmolean, the UK’s first public museum, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Pitt Rivers Museum and the Oxfordshire County Museums Service with their two sites, The Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock and the Museums Resource Centre at Standlake.

The consortium was awarded a total of £4.5 million in Renaissance funds over three years, from April 2012 to March 2015. The funding programme is focused on improving delivery and driving excellence in regional museums, so that more people visit museums and will experience them in new and innovative ways.

Oxford ASPIRE is one of two Renaissance Major Partner Museums in the South East - the other is Brighton & Hove Royal Pavilion & Museums.

Michael Cooke, Museums Relationship Manager, South East, Arts Council England says, ‘Oxford ASPIRE represents the variety of museums in the region. It combines the University’s internationally recognised collection, scholarship and exhibitions programme with county, city and district services.

‘Collectively, they respond creatively to the challenges facing public sector museums while continuing their strong dedication to serving local communities of interest and preserving their material heritage. As the sub-regional provider of the Arts Council’s museum development programme, the consortium will be an excellent partner in the Council’s thrust to maintain standards and to stimulate innovation in the sector.’

We spoke to Oxford ASPIRE’s Renaissance Manager, John Hobart, about what this new relationship with the Arts Council will mean for the ASPIRE Museums.

He says: ‘We believe that the ASPIRE Museums are individually excellent museums with exceptional expertise in everything from collections management to audience engagement. 

‘Our collections are recognised as some of the most important in the world, comprehensively representing the natural world and the history, technology, art and society of almost all the major world cultures. The collections are supported by a leading international academic institution and act as important teaching and research resources, as well as being open free to the public.

‘Our vision is that through working together, and collaborating with other museum services and the Arts Council, we will not only enhance their own services, but actively engage with the broader museums sector to promote skills sharing and innovation, supporting the excellence and resilience of museums across the UK.’

Educational programme

Over the past 10 years, the ASPIRE Museums have invested significantly in education through their museum learning services. Last year alone they provided free museum learning sessions to over 80,000 UK school students and engaged an additional 35,000 children and 40,000 adults in other museum learning activities, onsite and through outreach.

In 2011, the Pitt Rivers and Oxford University Museum of Natural History won the inaugural Clore Award for Museum Learning for their ‘Making Museums’ project, which uses object-based learning to teach year six students what happens to a museum object, from acquisition to display, before finally making a museum in their classroom.

John says, ‘We are extremely proud of our education service and grateful that new Renaissance funding will allow us to continue to provide and develop this service.’

Arts Council Renaissance funding will support a variety of the ASPIRE Museums’ activities including digital access programmes, community outreach work, conservation and increased collections access. In addition, a major focus will be to actively share skills and expertise, seek out new partnerships and collaborations, and support best practice and innovation across the museums sector.

Exhibition programme

The ASPIRE Museums also run an extensive exhibition programme and have already brought some significant international exhibitions to the UK, including the Ashmolean’s Heracles to Alexander exhibition, which showed new archaeological finds displayed for the first time outside of Greece, and Claude Lorraine: The Enchanted Landscape, which was produced in partnership with the Staedel Museum, Frankfurt and brought together 140 works from various international collections.

John explains: ‘We’ll be launching a skills development scheme for museum professionals, drawing on experts from within our museums and from throughout the sector to provide training and host subject specialist days. We’ll also be introducing an advisory portal to help organisations gain access to expertise held not only within our museums and partner museums, but also the wider academic and professional expertise within Oxford University.

‘We’re also looking forward to engaging in new partnerships with museums, both internationally and locally, and collaborating cross-culturally to discover new ways of working and engaging audiences.’

The ASPIRE Museums are currently developing new exhibitions on Raphael with the Staedel Museum, Frankfurt, and on Venetian Art with Uffizi, Florence.  They are working locally with the Museum of Oxford, Banbury Museum, and two Arts Council England National portfolio organisations, Oxford Contemporary Music and Modern Art Oxford.

John says, ‘We’re incredibly excited about the possibilities that our new relationship with the Arts Council is providing.’ 

Sally Abbott, Regional Director, South East, Arts Council England, said, ‘Oxford ASPIRE will play an important role in leading the sector - our funding will also go towards developing and consolidating this group of museums as sector leaders and supporting them in continuing to share their world-class scholarship and museum expertise while engaging new and increasingly diverse audiences. I’m confident they will make a strong mandate for museums in the region.’  

To learn more about Oxford ASPIRE, please visit: To see a full list of Renaissance Major partner museums, go to