The Ashmolean, the oldest museum in Britain, has a claim to being the oldest in the world.

"With the opening of its doors on 24th May 1683," says its Web site, "the Ashmolean Museum provided a setting in which the private collection emerged into the public domain. Even the use of the term 'museum' was a novelty in English."

As the museum of art and archaeology in this formerly industrial city -- where the "town" versus "gown" conflict has long been resolved in favor of the academic camp -- it is a teaching and research department of the University of Oxford.

To those of us who live near Oxford, the Ashmolean (pronounced Ash-mo'-lee-an), domiciled for the last 164 years in architect and archaeologist Charles Cockerell's handsome 1845 neoclassical edifice, is like the house of a beloved and eccentric old aunt: slightly shabby, but crammed full of treasures, most of which we've never seen. We've missed visiting while it has been closed for 10 months for building work. Next Saturday and Sunday, however, it reopens to the public. Auntie's gone, the old place is in new hands, and it has had a whole new building added to the back of it by award-winning contemporary architect Rick Mather.

For Ashmolean fans, this means no more hidden gems. Henry VII's finely embroidered funeral pall has been taken down from its spot by a back staircase and now hangs in a prominent position in a new gallery. The gasp-eliciting Marshall porcelain collection is in new vitrines, so that it now looks like a fantasy china shop. Some stunning purple, green and blue floral design Iznik tiles that you couldn't really see on their back corridor wall are spotlighted.

In the old Ashmolean, you were bound to come upon something you'd never seen before if you burrowed long enough in the corridors, but it was a bit of a scandal that many wonderful things couldn't be displayed at all. Now, after a £61 million-funding injection (including a £15 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, support from the Linbury Trust and an awful lot of fund-raising), the Ashmolean "has at least doubled its display space," according to Director Christopher Brown. Mr. Mather's new building provides 39 galleries, including four sensational temporary exhibition spaces, an education center, up-to-the-minute conservation studios and a rooftop restaurant.

It all actually started in 1659, when the two famous father and son gardeners, both named John Tradescant (the big genus named after them, Tradescantia, has about 50 species), gave their collection of natural-history specimens to the antiquarian, Elias Ashmole, who in turn donated it to the University of Oxford in 1677. The museum then opened in 1683, providing access to the public.

During the 18th century, these collections lost much of their scientific relevance, though there were a couple of big acquisitions, namely the Anglo-Saxon 9th-century gold and cloisonné enamel "Alfred Jewel" and ethnological materials collected on Captain James Cook's 1772-75 Pacific voyage. Big expansion took place during the tenure of Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the excavator of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete who developed the concept of a "Minoan civilization." He persuaded the university to build the neoclassical Cockerell structure, acquired the university's art collections and ceded a lot of ethnological material to the then new Pitt-Rivers Museum. In the 20th century, the Ashmolean absorbed the coins and medals scattered around the university and then swallowed up the Indian Institute's collections of first-rate Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Japanese objects.

It's this higgledy-piggledy, never-say-no to anything good assembly that has made the Ashmolean's holdings so great. Its attention span stretches from the Neolithic era to today, and it boasts such disparate superlatives as the world's largest group of Raphael drawings; Europe's most important collection of pre-Dynastic Egyptian material; the sole great Minoan collection in Britain; and the best collection of modern Chinese art in the West.

Christopher Brown, an Oxford man himself and an expert on 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting, took me on a whirlwind tour of the new building. We raced through the world-class Japanese collections; the extraordinary Islamic collections; the 300,000-item coin and medal Money Gallery; saw the never-before-exhibited Arabian "carved-wood doors from Jeddah given by Lawrence of Arabia, as well as his own robes," as Mr. Brown pointed out in the new textile gallery.

In the European ceramics gallery there is a lifesize 18th-century table-setting for a formal dessert course, complete with a very lifelike mouse stealing a titbit. In still other galleries are some of British painter Howard Hodgkin's great collection of Indian pictures; Paolo Uccello's "The Hunt in the Forest"; a pair of Titians; the odd picture by Michaelangelo, Piero di Cosimo or Pablo Picasso; and the unsurpassed Hill Collection of Musical Instruments.

Many of the galleries weren't yet fully installed, yet this quick march-through lasted an hour and a half; so you can see why the Ashmolean is something like a smaller New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in the heart of England.

Why, you might ask, should all these glorious things be kept in one place? "We needed a new conceptual frame," Mr. Brown said, "a new display strategy." The collections used to be displayed "with a traditional emphasis on typology and differences." Pots were all together, as were prints, paintings, coins and so on. The entering visitor still sees Cockerell's grand vista but takes a different route around the building. Called "Crossing Cultures -- Crossing Time," the idea, Mr. Brown said, "is that there are many ways to understand any object, from looking at it in its conventional, specific historical context to looking at it across cultures, as an object with functions that are universal, emphasizing connections, contacts and cultural exchanges."

For example, the floor dedicated to the ancient world has artifacts dating from pre-history to 700 A.D., showing the flowering of cultures from Ancient Egypt and the Near East and Greece and Rome, to China and India. With a sweep of his arm, Mr. Brown pointed out a startling material link made by a collection of Gandahar sculptures, including the late 2nd-3rd century A.D. schist standing "Buddha in a toga," the drapery of its robes resembling classical sculptures -- a visible, tangible bond between the galleries showing antique art of the West and those of India and China. Auntie's old house looks brand new.

Paul Levy
Wall Street Journal