Ashmolean Museum UEP: Promoting diversity through object-based learning

Dr Mallica Kumbera Landrus is a specialist in the material and visual culture of India, and is the Andrew W. Mellon Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean Museum. She is at the forefront of the Museum’s University Engagement Programme (UEP). This initiative makes the Ashmolean’s extensive collections available for innovative, interdisciplinary course collaborations with various University faculties and departments. Below, she shares some of the ways in which learning through objects has enriched and diversified the experiences of Oxford students across a wide range of degree subjects.


The discipline of history of art is an object-based cultural history, and thus my remit to teach with the Ashmolean Museum collections across divisions is founded on the basis that objects represent and reflect the ideas and values of people who commissioned, created, used and collected them. The objects are primary sources documenting the changes in social, religious, economical, and political ideas within their historical contexts. Thus, history of art is inherently an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural subject that illuminates our shared society and identity, its similarities as well as differences. Indeed, teaching with objects makes apparent the close relationships between art, culture and the global community.

I have found that visual and material culture is a very natural way to introduce diversity into any programme of study. My work combines lectures and discussion sessions with and around objects in the Ashmolean’s study rooms. I often showcase objects from a wide range of cultures and time periods; for many students, this may be the first time they have directly encountered or worked with artefacts especially from the East. Object-based learning is an interdisciplinary approach that transcends narrow fields of study, and encourages students and faculty to step outside their comfort zones and areas of expertise.

While initiatives in the United States, where I lived and taught for several years, to diversify faculty have been underway for several years and have resulted in a number of courses focused on cultural identity and diversity, the sheer breadth and number of objects available in Oxford make it possible for me to do here what I could not have easily done at Princeton, Brown or the Rhode Island School of Design – the three places where I have previously taught as member of faculty and/or fellow. The Ashmolean collections are deeper and wider than any other University Museum collection making it possible to create core and option courses, using material culture that represents global history under one roof.

Current and future engagements with the University Engagement Programme include Clinical Medicine, History, English Language and Literature, Oriental Studies, the Saïd Business School, International Development, Geography and the Environment, Archaeology, and History of Art. In my experience, there is no subject that could not benefit from looking widely and closely at objects even though, one must add, that the benefits may not be equal in all fields. Looking closely at objects adds a rich layer to the learning process that cannot be ignored. Object-based learning fosters skills that students from various fields can pursue, while discovering interests that many did not realise they had before attending an object session.

When we make object handling sessions at the Ashmolean relevant to what the students are studying, students come to see the experience not merely as a fun field-trip, but as an integral part of their education. The students who have a positive experience with us relay this to their peers and faculty, who in turn keep bringing new cohorts of students back to the museum for further sessions, drawing stronger connections between what they learn here and the existing curriculum.

Through the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ashmolean Museum, the UEP supports Oxford’s commitment in ensuring an inclusive space and curriculum.  While the remit specifically focuses on teaching across disciplines with and around objects in the collections, the very nature of object-based learning makes possible the pedagogical development to shape perspectives on diversity. Through object-based classes students are able to explore and communicate cultural values, power, privilege, exclusion, space, gender, sexual orientation, the perception of self identity and that of the world.
While the collections have been fundamental to this success, so too are Oxford faculty who choose to engage and include object-based learning in their courses. The Mellon Foundation’s main mission is to promote and defend the humanities and the arts especially for and to the well-being of a diverse society. When you think about future economic and demographic trends that will shift global power eastwards, I think it is essential that we deepen our understanding of these places.

What follows are some examples of how the University’s collections can be used to introduce greater cultural diversity in the curriculum.

History of Art

Every two-three weeks, the History of Art Master’s students in their core Theory and Methods course come to the museum, and are presented with objects from the West and the East. We discuss and apply the theories and methods covered in the previous weeks to these objects, which include items the students are normally unfamiliar with such as material from the Indian subcontinent and the Islamic world. The response from graduate students has been very positive, and has broadened their horizons: this has led to the design of an option for the undergraduate programme around the Ashmolean’s Indian collection – a new subject for the Department of History of Art.

Leading on from this, many History of Art students are active in the art scenes in their respective colleges and feel that their peers, who come from a great variety of disciplinary backgrounds, would benefit from similar object-based learning and experience. Proactive students interested in global identities have particularly requested and participated in sessions on Indian or Asian art. Additionally, increasing numbers of undergraduate students in History of Art (also, archaeology and anthropology) are opting to write extended papers and/or dissertations on the Ashmolean’s South Asian collections with which their primary curricular engagement was a single lecture and object session.

Oriental Studies

Besides offering various sessions and supervising undergraduate and graduate dissertations that focus on our collections, MPhil students in Oriental Studies are offered an option that looks at the Material and Visual Culture of South Asia. These students do not normally come with an art historical, anthropological or archaeological foundation, but are encouraged to explore the meanings and purposes of objects in their historical, religious, socio-political and economic development. While it is a South Asia (post-1500) focused course, the engagement between the region and Europe plays an important part in weekly topics.

Social Sciences

Departments such as International Development or Politics and International Relations are not normally inclined towards object-based learning or the use of the University’s museum collections, perhaps because they see their own focus as on current affairs and contemporary issues. However, the issues we are confronted with today have historical precedents, and artefacts can add historical depth.

For example, students who are looking at terrorism and conflict as part of their degree benefit from sessions focused on iconoclasm, regicide and the destruction of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The major destruction of world culture and heritage currently underway in Iraq and Syria has counterparts in the past across the globe. For instance, the destruction of Buddha sculptures in Bamiyan and iconic images of Saddam Hussein’s statue being torn down have parallels in 16th century Europe, or in the United States after the Declaration of Independence, when the statue of King George III was torn down in New York. The economic boom and development in countries like India and China have encouraged the administration in these countries to assess the value of cultural heritage, which makes objects pertinent to certain courses in international development, economics and political studies. The same objects could also be central to conversations with regard to deliberate destruction of heritage sites during sectarian riots or indeed under the aegis of development or upholding religious sentiments of the majority.

As an example of this added historical depth within the Social Sciences, the Global Governance and Diplomacy programme offered in Queen Elizabeth House partners with the museum to look at the importance and relevance of exchange and diplomatic gifts to the present-day conduct of international relations. An ivory box, made in mid-1600s Sri Lanka for the European market is one of many such objects desired, collected and exchanged as diplomatic gifts. This sumptuous object depicts the arrival of Europeans to an island, its indigenous population, and a hunting party comprising both groups of people along with captured elephants. Not only does it inform discussion of the relationship of these peoples, it also provokes discussion of the ivory trade and the current ban on trade in this material. In the core International Diplomacy course the historical dimensions of diplomacy are introduced, with a particular emphasis on the Amarna Letters (1350s-1330s BC), comprising of cuneiform tablets, as historical sources. Students identify similarities between diplomacy today and how it was practiced in other spaces and times, in contexts they may not have thought of before the object-based session.

Migration studies feature largely in core courses currently taught in International Development, Anthropology and the School of Geography and the Environment. Contributing objects sessions or even tours of the Ashmolean’s various galleries make the migration of people, objects and ideas come practically alive through a display strategy that addresses an interconnected world shaped and developed through cross-cultural engagements. A small Hindu icon from the collection of William Laud, not only connects Oxford to India, but can contribute thoughtful discussions on alternate histories and visions, and the rights and values and consequences of acting, or failing to act, as leaders.

Spanning the civilizations of east and west, the collections map the aspirations of mankind from the Neolithic era to the present day. In other words, the Ashmolean’s display strategy gives visitors a sense of similarities rather than just differences between cultures, focusing on how our ancestral roots are connected through the various trade routes.

Saïd Business School

For the MBA programme in the Saïd Business School, close observation of objects from the Palaeolithic to the 20th century are the basis for discussion of process, technology, mass production, input, output, quality control and leadership through history. Sessions focus on the trade in ceramics between China and the Middle East in antiquity, as well as the Far East and Europe from the early modern period. Likewise, the trade in textiles from India to the West as well as to Southeast Asia, and how Indian textiles were often used as currency and as medium of exchange, is a focus for discussion. This trade – particularly in raw materials such as cotton and sugar – was partially responsible for catalysing the slave trade, thus broadening discussion to Africa, Europe and the Americas. The collections can also illuminate contemporary issues such as the art market and the antiquities trade, and the related social and economic conditions for the ascendance of Chinese and Indian buyers. Students gain insight into the rules governing commerce in the ancient world, and find that there are parallels with trade and ideas in the modern era.


Fourth year medics choose a special module, which they work on exclusively and need to pass in order to proceed to the next year. They are assessed on the basis of a poster and brief presentation at the end of the module. Medicine and Visual Culture focuses on the history of medicine through objects in the Ashmolean and other Oxford collections. When medical students eventually become doctors they will be required to deliver effective medical care to patients with a wide range of cultural backgrounds. The course contributes to developing cultural sensitivity and competence. The course focuses on close observation skills; for example, looking closely at 18th century Hogarth prints may help in developing critical observation and visual analysis skills irrespective of discipline. Focusing on these prints, History or English Faculty students may discuss 18th century culture in England, urban life, morality, symbolism, gender issues, slavery, or tea, while medical students may see characters, race, life styles, relationships, mental and physical illness, syphilis, gout, rickets etc. This is also a rare opportunity for students to gain an appreciation of global and historical medical traditions, the relationship between the west and the east, and to focus on identity development as well as the politics of identity.