Oxfordshire in 50 objects
"Each tell a very individual story"
If someone asked you to describe Oxfordshire in 50 words, you’d probably mention Oxford city with its heritage and university, the River Thames meandering through green countryside, quaint Cotswold villages and the historical market towns of Banbury, Abingdon, Witney and Henley. There’s the Ridgeway and the Great Rollright stones, the science centres at Culham and Harwell and so on.
It would, however, be harder to describe Oxfordshire in 50 objects, which is exactly what a new exhibition at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock has done. And instead of capturing and celebrating an obvious Oxfordshire, they’ve dug beneath the surface and unearthed fifty varied items that represent the people, lives and past of the county.
These unrelated objects each tell a very individual story, and if you piece together the tales of different people and groups, the periods of history from which the chosen artefacts have been taken, and the reasons for the choices made, you find yourself immersed in an unexpected Oxfordshire you’ve never explored before.
“It’s a fascinating collection of personal tales drawn from the communities that live here and linking them with the past,” explained Stephen Barker, Heritage Advisor. “The labels are written by the individuals and community groups themselves and so their voice speaks right to you.”
There’s a stunning 20th century bowl made by Lucie Rie (1902-1995), a 1938 émigré from Nazi anti-Semitism in culturally dynamic Vienna, who became a Dame of the British Empire in 1991 and was one of the most innovative studio potters of the 20th century. The story here is that this delicate piece was part of a collection of items taken around the county for schoolchildren to handle – until its value was realised! It’s now worth around ten thousand pounds.
There’s a sign from the King Alfred’s coffee shop in Wantage, frequented by John Betjeman, dating from 1937; a propeller from a Handley plane in the 1940s from the Brize Norton Military Wives Choir, and a dress uniform of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry. There’s a pocket watch marking the passing of time, and a violin, a bike and an old fashioned pram, each’s place in the exhibition explained and adding a thread to the fabric of Oxfordshire, as woven at the museum.
Marking the importance of wool production and trading to the county, there’s a cloth and yarn cabinet from Bliss Tweed Mill which operated in Chipping Norton between 1847-1980, and had changing fortunes in the twentieth century from a strike in 1913/14 to unexpected riches from the production of khaki for WW1 uniforms. The quality and colours of the cloth samples invoke the spirit of the landscape and the essence of rural life even today, particularly in rural Oxfordshire.
From Tooley’s Boatyard, an eclectic chandlery between Banbury’s Castle Quays and the canal, there’s a model of a canal boat representing the importance of the canal to trade – the canal was commissioned in 1769 by the Duke of Bridgewater to link the waterways from Oxford to Coventry and transport coal from the mines to London.
Head back in time and there are jewels and riches – a large Anglo-Saxon brooch in copper, gold and silver, for example, discovered in Hanney. From the same era there’s a spearhead chosen by the children at Watchfield Primary School to “remind us that in the past people didn’t have lives as safe as we do today” and go further back to 3000BC or earlier when hunter-gatherers were settling down to farm the land, and there’s Neolithic pottery and, equally old and found in Ascott-under-Wychwood, a human vertebra pierced by the flint of an arrow!
Be moved by the story behind a German Teddy Bear, learn about strawberries and fruit farms in Longworth, discover why Cogges Farm is represented by a character from The Magic Roundabout and consider what it is about old-fashioned barbery that appeals to today’s teenagers!
The Oxfordshire in 50 Objects exhibition runs until 11th September at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.