A Visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum

Freya Baetens 23 September 2007

The Fitzwilliam Museum has been described as “one of the greatest art collections of the nation and a monument of the first importance”, “a museum collection of beauty, quality and rarity” and “one of the greatest glories of the University of Cambridge.” In my humble opinion (and I have visited quite a lot of museums so far), this is absolutely true!

It was named after Richard VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, who in 1816 donated his art and library collections, together with funds to house them, to the University of Cambridge. This bequest included 144 pictures, including masterpieces by Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio, 130 medieval manuscripts and a collection of autograph music by Handel, Purcell and other composers which guaranteed the Museum a place of prominence among the music libraries of the world.

In 1848 the Founder’s Building, designed by George Basevi and completed after his accidental death by C R Cockerell (who also signed for the Gonville and Caius Library, next to the Senate’s building), opened to the public. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the collections have grown by gift, bequest and purchase; their history is a continuous one which traces the history of collecting in this country over the last two hundred years.

Whether you prefer nosing around in Egyptian sarcophaguses, having a look at the Old Dutch Masters or glancing through medieval books, the Fitzwilliam is the place to be!

Its Antiquities Collection offers vivid glimpses of many aspects of ancient life, from funerary beliefs and customs to technology, sport, writing or the role of women. The Department of Applied Arts holds about 20,000 pieces of decorative arts and sculpture from Europe, the Middle East, India and the Far East. The Department of Coins and Medals embraces money in many different forms, from all parts of the world and spanning ancient to modern times, as well as medals since their origin in the Renaissance. The Department of Manuscripts and Printed Books is responsible for world-class collections fit for a National Library under the roof of a fine arts museum. And finally, the Department of Paintings, Drawings and Prints houses collections of international importance, including work of European, American and Asian schools, ranging from the thirteenth century to the present day.

Apart from the regular collection, the Museum organises special exhibitions; at the moment these include “The Gentle Art: Friends and Strangers in Whistler’s Prints” (4 September 2007 to 13 January 2008) and “Ethiopian Encounters: A British expedition to Ethiopia in the 1840s” (21 September 2007 to 20 January 2008). The Museum also organises workshops, lunchtime talks, evening performances such as classical concerts, courses and family events.

Visiting the Museum is easy: entry is free – though you are of course welcome to make a small donation or to support the museum by buying something in the museum shop.

Opening hours:

Tuesday – Saturday: 10:00 – 17:00

Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays: 12:00 – 17:00

CLOSED: Mondays, Good Friday and 24-26 & 31 December and 1 January

Location: Trumpington Street, about 500 metres from the city centre (across from Pembroke College).


Freya Baetens