200 Years at the Fitzwilliam

"…a good, substantial and convenient Museum Repository or other Building..."
- the last Will and Testament of Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, 1815.

200 Years at the Fitzwilliam

The Fitzwilliam Museum stands erect, its intricately carved façade looming tall over Trumpington Street. To its right is Peterhouse College where students pass though the wrought iron gates and step into the sandy stone buildings clasping armfuls of textbooks. In contrast, the chatter of tourists is audible even if you can't understand what they're saying. Japanese, I think.

You guessed it. Cambridge. But I'm not here for the illustrious colleges and I'm not here to photograph the buildings, however tempting that might be. I'm here for the Fitzwilliam Museum and to see their primary exhibit for this year - 'Celebrating the First 200 years: The Fitzwilliam Museum 1816 - 2016' .

To reach this exhibition, we mounted the staircase and passed through the Italian and Spanish galleries, full of elaborate acrylics and gold gilt frames. Padding through a hushed corridor, we reached The Octagon.

The low lights give the burgundy walls a slight shine and although it is a small room, the exhibit commands the space well, and it is bursting with information. A informative timeline spans the perimeter of the room, from 1816 to today, highlighting key dates in the Fitzwilliam's 200 year history.

An island stands in the centre of the room and offers a range of important pieces. From Greek-style busts to sculptures fashioned from the wrappings of a treacle can, this exhibit shows it all. The original blueprints of the Octagon had been reproduced and hung on the wall, showing us the initial plans for the important room. A cluster of porcelain monkeys caught my eye as they squatted on the display table - they were elaborately painted in violet and azure. A large portrait of Richard, 7th Viscount of Merrion, is a main focus of the exhibit, supported by the story behind the museum's benefactor.

I was fascinated to learn the complex conservation process of the Fitzwilliam's artefacts. I also discovered that it wasn't just children who were evacuated from cities during WWII; some of the collections were moved from the archives in case of bomb damage. Luckily, no bombs hit the museum during the war and its impressive architecture has been left unblemished for 200 years.

The success of this display lies in the carefully chosen objects which perfectly tell the story of the museum's past, present and future. It has a clear, easy-to-read style and is great for a quick glance around or a longer study. If you've not visited the Fitzwilliam before and are a bit daunted by the vast collections in the long galleries, why not pop into this exhibit for a quick summary of the museum.

And for those dedicated historians, the release of a new book has coincided with the exhibit. 'The Fitzwilliam Museum: A history' explains in greater detail the captivating past behind this iconic East Anglian landmark.


Sienna James

Sienna James Voice Team

Formerly Assistant Editor, Sienna now studies History of Art at the University of Cambridge and loves to write about the intersection of politics, history and visual art. Sienna is author of the Creative Education and Instaviews series.

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  • Diana Walton

    On 4 November 2016, 10:24 Diana Walton Voice Team commented:

    Fascinating history to the Fitzwilliam museum - I heard about this exhibition of its back story recently and it's well explained here!

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