IT IS TEMPTING to concentrate on the wonderful collection of exhibits in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, but you should spare some of your attention for the magnificent decoration of some of its galleries. Look up from the paintings and display cases to see superb ceiling decorations above you, and also around you when using the grand staircase. You are sure to be amazed.
The museum is housed in a neo-classical edifice initially designed by George Basevi (1794-1845), architect of London’s Grosvenor Square. After Basevi’s death, the planning of the structure was completed by Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863). Built to house the collection bequeathed to the University of Cambridge by Richard FitzWilliam, 7th Viscount FitzWilliam (1745-1816), the present museum was opened to the public in 1848. Over the years since then, the museum has been enlarged by adding newer buildings and now it is home to about 500,000 artefacts.
Years ago, I remember reading (I cannot remember where) a comparison of a museum in the USA designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) with another one, the Guggenheim in Manhattan, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Both buildings are elegant but that by Mies Van der Rohe modestly allows the exhibits to grab the viewer’s attention more than the architecture, whereas the unusual design of Wright’s building competes with the artworks for the viewer’s attention. The internal decoration of the older galleries of the Fitzwilliam are sufficiently eye-catching to be able to compete with the exhibits housed in them, but somehow, they hardly do this. That is why I am asking you to take your eyes off the exhibits if only to glance briefly at the décor of the galleries,