SEMINAR—Framing Art—Fitzwilliam Museum


As part of this week’s seminar for the Framing Art course, we were asked to put together a short 5 minute presentation on “a significant visit to a museum” following on from a reading of texts by Zola1 and Déotte2. In the event the presentations didn’t take place, but rather than waste the work I’ll post the outline of my presentation here.


  • Hi, I’m Edward and I’m on the PGDip in Contemporary Art History.
  • This piece is about the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I lived and worked in Cambridge for 5 years prior to moving back to London to begin this course. The office in which I worked was just down the road from the Fitz but I only ever visited it twice in all the time I was there.
  • What I’m going to talk about is not my own significant visit, but someone else’s which focused attention on the potentially conflicting demands of display and conservation in the museum environment and is an interesting case study of the way in which a museum can put a bad experience to good use through the application of PR.

The Museum

  • In 1816, Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, bequeathed his collection of works of art and library and the funds to house them to the University of Cambridge.
    • The collection included 144 pictures, including paintings by Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio.
    • 400 albums of engravings, including a series of Rembrandt etchings, apparently the finest in England at the time.
    • 130 Medieval manuscripts and a collection of autograph music by Handel, Purcell and other composers.
  • The Museum building opened in 1848 and was designed by George Batevi, a pupil of Sir John Soane, although he died before it was finished and the work was completed by Charles Cockerell, who also designed the present building of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
  • It’s built in a rather fine Neo-Classical design, looking very similar to the Tate Britain in fact.
    • Which was built some 50 years later in 1897.
  • If you ever visit Cambridge it’s well worth a visit.
  • To quote the website, the Museum now houses “a world-class collection of works of art and antiquities spanning centuries and civilisations.”
  • The range of work goes from Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts through to Impressionist paintings.

The Vases

  • What I’m going to focus on are five vases that entered the collection in 1948.
  • They’re Qing dynasty, made during the reign of Kangxi and date from the late 17th or early 18th century.
  • Three of the vases were put on display on a recessed window sill, half way up an imposing 1930s marble staircase and had been in that position for decades.
  • They were described as possibly some of the best known pieces on display because of this prominent position.

The Event

  • On the 25 January 2006, a visitor to the Museum slipped on a loose shoelace and fell down the stairs, bringing the vases crashing down as he tried to steady himself.
  • At the time the event was described as an accident and the visitor was allowed to leave, but in April he was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage.

The Issues

  • Leaving aside the criminal investigation, what interested me was the ongoing PR campaign following the breaking of the vases and how it has been used to justify the museum and present an image of their being on the ball after such a serious accident.
  • The public reaction at the time was exemplified by the BBC. In their TV report the same evening, they explicitly criticised the Museum for the display of the vases, saying: “Was it really a good idea to put them on a window sill?”
  • The Director responded in that same report that one of the things that they pride themselves on is that they have objects on display that are “almost within reach” and “accessible” to the public.
  • So here we have the requirements of the audience’s in conflict with conservation of the objects, two of the Museum’s major reasons for being.
  • I realise I’m making rather a tendentious connection here, but in a sense this event can be seen as a way in which the museum can end up serving both camps effectively.
  • Since the breakages, the Museum has begun using their website to post ongoing information and pictures about the progress of the repairs to the vases, with information about the way the aftermath of the event was handled, from the almost archaeological collection of the pieces of pottery to details of the conservator hired to undertake the repairs and her progress.
  • They have made something an event around it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t create a temporary exhibition around the eventual reinstatement of the vases.
  • It seems that a potentially disastrous event like this can be turned to good use by the Museum for the purposes of raising their profile with the ultimate aim of encouraging more visitors. And at the same time it can be used to promote their conservation activities in an populist way.
  1. Zola, Emile. L’Assommoire, transl. L. Tancock, Penguin, London, 1970, pp. 76–107.
  2. Déotte, Jean-Louis. “Rome, the Archetypal Museum and the Louvre, the Negation of Division” in Pearce, Susan ed., Art in Museum, Athlone Press, London, 1995, pp. 215–22

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SEMINAR—Framing Art—Fitzwilliam Museum by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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