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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge

What is the Fitzwilliam Museum?

The Fitzwilliam Museum is Cambridge University’s principal museum showcasing beautiful art and artefacts from around the world.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Rept0n1x, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fitzwilliam Museum History

The Fitzwilliam is the crown jewel among the university’s museums. It houses a stunning collection of over half a million artefacts and significant artistic works from across a wide variety of periods and cultures, and it’s housed in what is easily one of the finest buildings in all of Cambridge. The Fitzwilliam is a delight for lovers of history, art and architecture, and given the high quality of the rotating exhibits, merits a visit on every trip to the city.

The breadth of the museum’s collections is extremely impressive, with art and artefacts from across the Classical, Medieval and Renaissance periods displayed alongside works by some of Europe’s finest post-Renaissance artists, including Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Thomas Gainsborough. It’s widely considered to hold one of the most outstanding collections of art in Western Europe and countless hours can be spent visiting the exhibits and displays here without any fear of exhausting the museum’s holdings. While the entire Fitzwilliam merits exploration, particular highlights on display can be found in the armoury, in the Egyptian collection, and among the Impressionist works. There’s a café and a shop well placed to offer respite from wandering the building. The Fitzwilliam also houses a renowned collection of music manuscripts and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a department for the education of postgraduate painting conservators.

However, the extensive collections aren’t the only reason to visit the Fitzwilliam. George Basevi’s Neoclassical building that houses them is itself stunning. This can best be observed in the Entrance Hall, one of the grandest spaces in the city, and on the upper levels. The land upon which the museum stands once belonged to neighbouring Peterhouse College, and the building was constructed specifically to house the personal collection bequeathed to the university in 1816 by Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Mount Merrion, Dublin, for the furtherance of scholarship and of the university’s reputation. The foundation stone of the building was laid in 1837 and the museum was opened to the public in the following decade.

The Fitzwilliam is a location beloved by many Cambridge students and faculty members, and it’s far from uncommon to see the great minds of the university visiting a new exhibit or wandering round a favourite room. The museum is so well loved that it has contributed to the cherished folklore of the university: the magnificent statues of lions that have guarded the steps to the museum since they were first sculpted in 1839 are said to come alive at the stroke of midnight and to prowl down off their plinths.

Dive deep into the city’s rich history with our comprehensive Cambridge audio tour.


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