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The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK

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The Fitzwilliam Museum is situated on the Trumpington Road, in Cambridge, UK. It occupies an imposing Victorian classical building, sporting a large Corinthian portico entrance, on a 50-acre site between Peterhouse College and the University of Cambridge Engineering Department. It houses notable collections of art and antiquities of great national and international importance.

The museum was founded in 1816 on a bequest of Richard, the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion to the University of Cambridge. He gave his collection of paintings, manuscripts and books, as well as £100,000 for a suitable building to house them.

Land was bought from Peterhouse College in 1821, and an 1834 architectural competition for the museum's design was won by George Basevi, who laid the first stone in 1837. The main building, known as the Founder's Building, was opened to the public in 1848, but the highly decorated entrance hall was not completed until the 1870s by the architect EM Barry.

Various additions and extensions have been made to the main building in the last two centuries, all in the classical style, and thanks mainly to generous bequests. There are now two floors, with several galleries and display areas on both. The entrance hall is situated on a mezzanine floor, as Basevi thought the main entrance to the museum should lead up the grand steps at the front. From here, visitors can either descend to the ground floor, via two staircases, or ascend to the first floor up a single sweeping staircase through the huge marble-clad hall.

The Fitzwilliam Museum is funded partly by the University of Cambridge, and partly through endowments, trust funds and charitable donations. Companies and local government authorities also contribute their support.

The Museum Collections

There are many fine collections of art and antiquities in the Museum, and the majority of these are permanently on display. Visiting and temporary exhibitions, which typically remain for several months, are frequently incorporated, and there are guided tours available from very knowledgeable curators and volunteers.

The initial collection, donated by Viscount Fitzwilliam, has been significantly enlarged by a continuing series of gifts and bequeathals, and other museums from around the world frequently exchange small collections for exhibition elsewhere.

The permanent collections include art and antiquities from many eras and locations, as described below. There are five main curatorial departments, whose study rooms, offices and reserve collections are usually open only to scholars and specially arranged parties of the Friends of the Fitzwilliam.


The Antiquities Department contains the following collections:

  • Ancient Egyptian - Rich collections of funerary and devotional objects, partly from British excavations in Egypt - sponsored by the Egypt Exploration Society - and partly from benefactions. The huge red marble sarcophagus lid of Rameses III stands at the end of the lower-floor gallery, the whole collection spanning the Pre-dynastic (5,000 BC) to the Ptolemaic (1st Century BC) Periods.

  • Ancient Greek - Collections derived partly from excavations by the British School of Archaeology in Athens, and partly from benefactions. There are Bronze Age Aegean and Minoan artefacts, including terracotta and marble sculptures, vases and gemstones.

  • Western Asiatic - Artefacts from Mesopotamia and the kingdoms of Ur, Babylon, Assyria, Persia and Arabia, including sculptures, bronzes, glass and jewellery from the paleolithic to the early Christian eras.

Applied Arts

The Department of Applied Arts contains collections of ceramics, porcelains and glass, including the following:

  • English & European - Extensive collections of pottery, glass and maiolica1 from several large benefactions. There are also many items of English armour, silver and furniture.

  • Chinese, Japanese & Korean - Many fine rugs and textile samplers, as well as wide-ranging collections of porcelain, ceramic, jade and lacquer.

Coins and Medals

The Department of Coins and Medals was established in 1856, following a large donation of Greek and Roman coins from the University. The collection also includes medieval European and Anglo-Saxon coins of great significance.

The department also holds medals, engraved gems and cameos, most notably from Italian collections and benefactions, as well as more recent English military medals after a generous bequest in 1936.

Paintings, Drawings and Prints

The museum has a broad range of oils, watercolours, prints and miniatures, including masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne and Picasso.

The early Italian school is generously represented, as are the Dutch and Flemish schools of the 19th Century. The Rembrandt collection is one of the finest and most extensive in the world, comprising many large-scale works, miniatures and sketch books.

There is also a collection of 20th Century art, with visiting international exhibitions housed in the Adeane Gallery and Octagon Room on the first floor.

Manuscripts and Printed Books

Since the founder's original bequest of 130 medieval manuscripts, this collection has grown remarkably rich in illuminated2 volumes. It also contains an increasingly large number of musical manuscripts dating from the 14th Century, including the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal3 Book.

There are also important literary manuscripts by Blake, Keats and Rossetti, and the printed books section has over 10,000 volumes.

Other Museum Attractions

The museum also plays host to concerts, talks and lectures, mostly during University term time. These occur at lunchtime on Saturday and on occasional evenings. Guided tours of the museum's collections are available as well.

The Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum was formed in 1909 - the oldest such society in Britain. Its purpose is to supplement the museum's very meagre purchase grant, and to run a lively programme of private viewings, tours, concerts and lectures for its members, who also volunteer their time for guiding and educational purposes.

The museum also has a gift shop and a café.

Visitor Information

For complete, up-to-date information, visit the museum's website at:

Entry to the Fitzwilliam Museum is free, but there is a donation box at the entrance to help keep it that way.

School parties must book visits in advance, and there is a continuing programme of educational services, teacher workshops and a variety of special projects for children.

Opening Times

The museum is open at the following times:

  • Tuesdays - Saturdays: 10am - 5pm
  • Sunday: 2.15pm - 5pm

and closed at these times:

  • Mondays (except Easter Monday, and spring and summer Bank Holidays)
  • Good Friday
  • May Day bank holiday
  • 24 December - 1 January, inclusive.
1A type of ceramic pottery that gained popularity in Italy after its journey from 13th Century Persia (now Iran).2'Illuminated', as far as manuscripts are concerned, means 'graphically illustrated'. The first capital letters of each page of an illuminated manuscript are often turned into ornate and colourful pictures. There are also illustrations of people mentioned in the text, especially in religious documents.3The virginals was a keyboard instrument much like a harpsichord, in which the strings are plucked rather than hammered.

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