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The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge)

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Address: Trumpington Street / Cambridge CB2 1RB / England

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      02.10.2008 15:49
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      An old-fashioned museum with lots to see

      You can't go far in Cambridge without bumping into a Fitzwilliam. There's a Fitzwilliam Street; little Fitzbillie's is a popular tea shop. A distant cousin, Fitzwilliam College, sits aloofly on the outskirts. But the paterfamilias of the clan, square and majestic in the centre of the city, is the Fitzwilliam Museum. With its classical columns and pediment it looks like the British Museum, without the crowds. It also gives off a "to be taken seriously" aura. This was the place where a hapless visitor tripped over his shoelaces and in the course of his ensuing prat-fall brought down three priceless Qing vases. The museum sued for criminal damage. Crazy, eh? (Well the vases were). So one expects to be informed, even awe-struck, but not "entertained" or "engaged", and certainly not invited to push buttons on an interactive screen.

      So the first thing that met my eye in the entrance hall was the offer of an audio-visual guide with hand-held computer. So much for first impressions. The second and far more striking thing was the entrance hall itself, which could qualify as an exhibit on its own. Stretching the full height, three floors, of the building, it is panelled, gilded, painted, decorated and marbled, but far from feeling over-cooked it presents a cohesive whole which, although ornate, does justice to the space to be filled. The effect is enhanced by twin flights of wide stairs at each side.

      To get to this point, the visitor has walked up from street level and is now on a mezzanine floor. From here one goes down (back to street level) to antiquities, or up to paintings and drawings. "Antiquities" is how the staff in the museum describe the section, but more accurately it is artefacts and objets d'art covering periods from ancient Egypt to 19th century ceramics via renaissance weaponry and mediaeval coins. Similarly the paintings cover schools world-wide from the 13th century to the present day. It is truly a magpie collection, very traditional, and unlike the more modern museum concept which focuses on one specialism. So it is very much of the time of its founder, the eponymous 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, who started his collection on a European Grand Tour and continued adding to it throughout his life. After he bequeathed it to the University it grew further by gift, purchase and bequest so that the museum's remit remains broad. Unfortunately for the review writer it makes for problems in conveying a coherent impression, partly because there is so much, and partly because one reacts differently to each collection. So bear with me as I cherry pick my way round.

      I started downstairs, and the first displays you meet can indeed be labelled "antiquities". Here in a high-ceilinged room flooded with light is case after case of Greek, Roman, Cypriot, Cretan remains. Very interesting - that most damning of praises. If ever there was an instance of less is more, this is it. The display is so huge it's a jumble, and judging by the locked drawers down the sides of the room, they could turn this lot over several times. More focus, I was saying to myself, and when I did find some focus, it was refreshing and informative: a display of how the traditional black and orange Greek pottery was created. A combination of science, skill and judgment, since you ask, commodities we could have done with in the curators of this section.

      It got much better after this, but while I'm in critical mode I will just sound off about the labelling. In a recess on the staircase down to antiquities was a piece of a bas-relief frieze which I stopped to look at. Assyrian, 5th century BC (although I may not be remembering that right) the label said, with a priest holding a pale. A pale? A pale what? Or a misspelt bucket, or a pale beyond which someone was cast? Should I rule out the adjective, as weren't these decorations originally brightly painted? Weren't Sennacherib's legions "gleaming in purple and gold"? You see the strange byways incorrect use of language leads the reader. Slightly irritated, I went down a few more steps to a similar frieze, same origin, same date, with a priest holding a ... pail. And yes, the bucket was clearly defined in this one. Other misspellings cropped up elsewhere, though without the same incomprehension. How many akademix dus it tak to run a spel cheque? One to do it, one to conduct a peer review, thousands to argue over sources and usage and none to get it right.

      But it got better very quickly as I went into the Egyptian section. I was met by a huge statue (an upright sarcophagus lid) of Rameses III, about 12 feet high, and thought, wow - an expression which never left me as I went round these excellent displays. The sarcophagi were as bright as if they had been painted yesterday. The grave goods were delightful in their detail, and the information about the individuals stunning. All round these centrepieces were displays of everyday items, including some beautiful bits of jewellery I could happily have walked away with, and clear expositions of what customs pertained in the various (to me) complicated eras of Egyptian history. Full marks here. A master class of its kind.

      On past the ceramics - sorry, not my thing - and a quick glance at the weaponry, and then to another highlight, the Rothschild Room with its medieval coins and manuscripts. This small room is totally enclosed within the museum, has no natural light and the artificial light is muted. It is, in fact, as dark as the Greek and Roman section was light, and the impact is not just allegorical but perfect for the display of these items. Everything glowed in here, the jewelled colours of the illustrated manuscripts and the rows of gold coins, offset against the background darkness. There are important items here, like the chunky Anglo-Saxon brooch found in Faversham, and an Edward III gold double florin, one of only three in existence. But as someone whose handwriting has been compared to a spider on crack, it was the perfection of the manuscripts that drew me, as they always do. I left amazed, not for the first time, at the level of artistry, certainty and devotion that underpinned these works.

      Where next? Upstairs to the pictures. It is always a pleasure in a new art gallery to see which paintings come off the wall at you and demand your attention. There was no shortage of big names and important periods clamouring to be seen, but the Dutch, Italian Renaissance and landscapes, among others, will have to wait for another time. Two galleries had my attention. The first had a small but perfectly formed collection of Impressionists, as fine as any I've seen. It has Renoir's Place Clichy which was so lovely I've completely revised my impression (hah!) of Renoir who I previously thought blowsy and flouncy. There was Monet's Poplars, a great swirl of blue and green, more movement than I remember seeing in a Monet picture before. The rest of my time in pictures was spent in the portraits. This again meant some serious revision on my part, as I discovered how much I enjoyed these. I've never been to the National Portrait Gallery - never got round to it, didn't feel I missed anything - but that will be corrected. In the hands of a great artist a portrait painting writes a whole book about an individual. Hogarth's civic worthies, quite apart from their surprisingly modern appearance, spoke of respectability, struggle, pretension, hidden secrets, humanity. But I spent longest in front of the Countess of Southampton by an unknown artist. She was a patron of Shakespeare, and having recently read about her in Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare biography it was lovely to meet her here, almost in the flesh. It took Ackroyd pages of narrative to convey an idea of the intelligent, no-nonsense, charming fixer who was captured here in a single image. Admittedly a large image, almost full-size, which caught her about to take a step forward, as if into the room with you. She was sporting a big frock and patrician expression, and I bet her voice carried miles. Terrific.

      A few practicalities. The weird slow-motion shuffle we all adopt when going round galleries and museums I find particularly tiring, so I was glad to find a nice café on site. It's in an extension to the original building, and partly glazed so it's very light and airy, especially as one of the original exterior walls is now on the inside. The shop is next to it. No photography is allowed in the museum. I know this for a fact having been told off for snapping some stuff. Sorry, I didn't see the signs. Even after that, when looking for the signs, I still didn't see them. But you are allowed to take photos of the entrance hall. Best of all, it's free.

      Now I have to consider if it does its job. But what is its job? To provide a resource for academic research - certainly, and a glance at the acres of archives on its website shows that what we see on display is only a fraction of its collection. The Fitzwilliam Iceberg. To inform - yes, good, even excellent, in parts, but could be better in some sections. To entertain and delight - well I was entertained and at times delighted. I would guess there's something here for everybody, although I wouldn't recommend it for children with the exception of the Egyptian section. I would like to have it on my doorstep to drop into frequently for half an hour or so and concentrate on one or two items. Then I might get to grips with that Greek and Roman stuff.

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    • Product Details

      Highlights include exquisite pieces of painting from the fourteenth century to the present day, drawings, prints, sculptures, furniture, armour, pottery and much more to peak your intellectual curiosity.