Rethinking Tomorrow’s 'Oxford Heads' : call-out to artists!

Updated: Aug 26, 2019


Looking out over a significant public space, where historic Oxford University buildings, the Sheldonian Theatre and History of Science Museum, meet the public highway and commerce, are 17 bearded men - stone heads, commonly known as The Emperors’ Heads but without specific identity. The current generation of heads were installed in the 1970s, succeeding earlier generations from 1868 and 1669. Mystery surrounds who they were intended to represent, although they are sometimes referred to as 'Emperors heads'.


One of the 17 'Oxford heads'

In his novel Zuleika Dobson (1911), Max Beerbohm referred to the heads' elusiveness:

”Who were lechers, they are without bodies; who were tyrants, they are crowned never but with crowns of snow; who made themselves even with the gods, they are by American visitors frequently mistaken for the Twelve Apostles.”

There have been significant changes in the population of the University and the City since their first installation 350 years ago, and the stone of the heads has been badly eroded and disfigured by rainfall and air pollution, but the all male representations have been resolutely replaced.


With investigation into the history and conservation of the heads, due to culminate in an exhibition in the Weston library in summer 2019, comes the opportunity to ask what should be Tomorrow’s Oxford Heads, and what should look out over the public from the perimeters of Oxford University buildings in the 21st century?


The Tomorrow’s Oxford Heads project, supported by Oxford University’s Diversity Fund, is putting out a call to artists to respond to these questions with ideas for temporary installations to coincide with the exhibition marking the 350th anniversary, to challenge the uniformity of the current heads, and to provoke public response in order to lay the ground for installation of more diverse representations in public art around University buildings in the future.

The closing date for expressions of interest is Monday 7 January. The Artists’ Brief and related information is available to download from https://hsm.ox.ac.uk/tomorrows-oxford-heads and https://www.geog.ox.ac.uk/news/2018/1121-tomorrowsoxheads.html

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