Fitzwilliam Museum – from personal to public

A museum doesn’t begin with an empty building waiting to be filled. What is usually the catalyst is a bequest, and a generous one that requires space – the repository.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge began with such a bequest by Richard Fitzwilliam, 7th Viscount in 1816 of his art collection and library, plus £100,000 (substantial!). The collection was housed in a school, moving in 1842 to part of Cambridge University until the Founders Building was completed 1848. The frontage was added in 1875 – more Greek columns, a major feature of Victorian museums.
But one bequest wasn’t the end. Another was made in 1912 including 84 paintings, so the building grew with an extension added in 1931, paid for by another generous benefactor.
The legacy of such deposits creates a museum without a strong theme. This is not a war museum, or a science museum. Unlike museums established by explorers, there aren’t stuffed animals, nor the archaeological finds of the local county. The Fitzwilliam reflects the wealth of its founders with its five departments: antiquities, coins and medals, manuscripts and books, paintings and drawings, and applied arts.
The music manuscripts include the largest collection of virginal music written by the Elizabethan greats: Byrd, Gibbons and Tallis. The Egyptian exhibition is the best outside of the British Museum, while the paintings represented a list of the famous painters you would expect to find in national galleries, including twenty-five water colours by Turner, The Last of England (voted 8th greatest painting by a BBC Radio 4 poll) and bronze statues that might be by Michelangelo.
Pots, vase, jewellery, fans, Islamic art, clocks and ceramics. It’s no wonder the Fitzwilliam has a fantastic reputation. If you love a museum of antiquities and art, then add it to your list.
Can you imagine the insurance?

It’s a curator’s worst nightmare to have your objects damaged or stolen. Both have happened at the Fitzwilliam.

2006: a visitor tripped over three Qing Dynasty vases and smashed them. They were reconstructed and put safely behind glass, where they should have probably been in the first place. The lost of artwork to damage, intentional or accidental, and where restoration has been possible, standards vary, mostly due to a lack of understanding at the time of its conservation. Is it right leave a damaged work as it is, or attempt to repair it, and in doing so fail, making it only worse in appearance? There have been some notable cases of disastrous restorations. On the whole, though, the conservationists do a remarkable job of resurrecting objects. It is a costly business though both in time and resources.

2012: a collection of Chinese jade was stolen and recovered. The burglars were sent to jail. This was probably lucky, only a small percentage of stolen art is ever recovered. There are missing Rembrandts, Van Goghs, and Picassos. Selfishly kept by privateers and lost to world of art.

So while a bequest might begin a museum’s life, keeping it going takes dedication and money, and good security systems. Fitzwilliam is free to visit, for now.

If you could found a museum, what would you put in it?



  1. Wendy Janes · · Reply

    That’s such a good question. If I could found a museum, what would I put in it? I’d rather like my museum to showcase theatre, TV and film costumes. It would be a mix of creativity, history and popular culture, with a special area for people to create their own costumes either using scraps of material or a computer program.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think my museum would be eclectic with my background in sciences, music and art, and plenty of history too. I would like to visit your museum, especially the film costumes.


  2. Another fascinating story.
    I’m becoming very fascinated with the way museums came into being. It’s often a story to tell,a nd very often, I see, is quite surprising 🙂

    The Old Shelter – The Great War


  3. So many museums to see so little time. I think a museum of musical instruments from around the globe would be cool. It would be good to have an auditorium and live musical performances with the instruments.

    My “F” song today:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would love to have a museum of flutes from around the world as I’m a flautist. So far I have about 6.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That would be awesome. Making music makes the world a lighter place. I’m guessing you like the Jethro Tull songs?


  4. Hi Rachel – another very interesting post about a museum I dare say I will never get to see. But good thought provoking questions. I guess I like Museums about technology – how it has changed over the years. That and or social history or domestic stuff.


    1. I worked in a science museum, so I’m a bit biased towards to technology ones.


  5. I used to work opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum so would sometimes have a quick wander around there on my lunchbreak but there was so much to see!
    I think if I curated a museum it would be for different forms of media like films and comics that are sometimes seen as “lesser than” when it comes to artistic value.
    My A-Z in April is all about characters I love. Latest post: O is for Sally Owens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Must have been a lovely way to spend a lunch break.


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