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?