The Fitzwilliam Museum: A personal reflection

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge prides itself on its large and diverse collection of applied arts, prints and art. And -indeed - as I approached the imposing facade and entered the recently refurbished reception area yesterday afternoon, I have to confess that I was impressed and looking forward to seeing the galleries and collections they house. However, I was to be disappointed.

Clearly a lot of money has been spent on restoration and the creation of a new shop and cafe area of the museum, but the galleries and display techniques utilised within really left something to be desired. A case in point is the Far Eastern Gallery; a hotch-potch of Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics and applied arts packed into an area which is clearly far too small. Not only is the decor a little dated and shabby, the arrangement of the display cases is hardly accessible. I had to stand on tippy-toes to view the items on the third shelf level, and and even a six-footer would probably have to strain to have a good look at the objects displayed on the fourth and highest shelf. A similar arrangement continued in the European ceramic galleries. The sheer number of objects on display was overwhelming.

Parts of the museum (especially the toilets and cloakroom area) felt a little grubby and uncared for, even though they were in the more recently refurbished areas of the building. Clearly work is continuing at the moment, which must disrupt the daily workings of the institution, but there's really no excuse for dirty loos!

However, there were highlights: The Shiba fan gallery and the current Howard Hodgkin exhibition. As my Mum said, his paintings were like jewels, and I could have very easily lived with a couple of the smaller works (could I afford them!). The museum has also displayed its fine collection of Korean celadon ceramics in a newer and more physically accessible gallery, which really sets off the collection to its best advantage, and should serve as a prototype for any future developments of the other ceramics galleries. And last, but not least, we had a very nice, reasonably priced lunch in the museum caff.

All in all, the Fitzwilliam Museum has the potential to be fantastic; impressive building, extensive collection, but at present it is a little disappointing. It's definitely worth spending a few hours there if you happen to be passing, but don't bother making a special trip.

Finally I must apologise for the lack of pictures. The Fitzwilliam does not permit photography in any part of the building, except the cafe, and I didn't think you necessarily needed to see my Mum eating her lunch (neither would she have appreciated that much!).


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