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After his first six months in post the new Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Tim Knox, reveals his aspirations for the historic building and world-renowned collections of the University of Cambridge’s principal art museum, including major building works currently underway on the portico and future acquisitions.
Tim Knox was previously Director of the atmospheric Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, which he carefully restored over the last eight years. An architectural historian, Knox is keen to see the Fitzwilliam take its place as one of the UK’s finest neo-classical buildings - a masterpiece in its own right.
"My predecessors have done brilliant work to improve the building and programmes of the Fitzwilliam. Duncan Robinson implemented the Courtyard extension in 2004, which gave the Museum much-needed facilities, including its first dedicated education and conservation studios, and a proper shop and café, while Timothy Potts has left a legacy of groundbreaking international exhibitions. I am committed to continuing our major exhibitions programme, but our next focus of attention must again be the fabric of the building, improving circulation and the display of the collections, and making the Fitzwilliam a more welcoming place. Surplus ‘Do not touch’ signs will be banished, displays of fresh flowers will come back to the galleries, and photography is now allowed throughout the Museum."
First steps include the renovation of the Founder’s Building in time for the Museum’s bi-centenary celebrations in 2016. The first stage is already underway, with the grandiose portico on Trumpington Street swathed in scaffolding. Behind it, contractors are repairing the roof and elaborate coffered vault, and will also restore the torches once held by the griffins that perch on the pediment. The signage and lighting will be improved and the elaborate railings, with their impressive spikes and pineapples, will also be given a much-needed lick of paint - bronzed, with gilded and silvered enrichments.
"I want to reassert the importance of our grand Founder’s entrance. I don’t see monumental porticoes as elitist or intimidating - we want people to revel in the opulence and magnificence of the Museum. The entrance hall gives the Paris Opéra a run for its money, and yet the Museum is free to visit and we want everyone to feel welcome in this wonderful setting."
Knox plans to open the lofty, columned, Founder’s Library, containing the rare books collected by Viscount Fitzwilliam, and hitherto only accessible to scholars or for exclusive tours. The Museum is also renovating its much-loved Armoury, and installing more environmentally-friendly air-handling systems, so the galleries upstairs can be maintained more efficiently.
Knox will also be helping to steer the development of the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) Major Partner Museum programme, sponsored by Arts Council England, whose mission is to unlock the collections of the University’s eight museums, and the world-class research activities which underpin them, to a larger and more diverse audience.
"In addition to our ground-breaking research, public programmes and far-reaching education and outreach activities, we should showcase the full range of conservation work done by our Museums, both in our buildings and outside of Cambridge. For instance, our Hamilton Kerr Institute at Whittlesford is dedicated to the conservation of easel paintings in oil and tempera. It is an extraordinary resource. I want to make more of the Hamilton Kerr, and this might involve bringing their activities back into Cambridge and closer to the Museum, where people can actually see and participate in conservation in action. Then there are the Fitzwilliam’s storerooms, which contain spectacular collections of works of art and antiquities of all types from all over the world. For reasons of space only a fraction of our holdings are on permanent display. They include specialist collections such as clocks and watches, Japanese netsuke, extraordinary jewellery and fans, but there are also major works in storage including paintings by John Singer Sargent and William Hogarth. We need to reorganise gallery spaces to improve displays, and increase the number of items on public view. We also want to improve working conditions for staff and create a larger, more flexible, space for temporary exhibitions."
"But we should also continue to collect - collections are the lifeblood of a museum and underpin new research and discoveries about the lives, culture and beliefs of our predecessors. Recently we have been acquiring things that aren’t currently that fashionable, but are comparatively cheap - such as Japanese erotic prints, or elaborate mid-Victorian china - which earlier collectors and benefactors thought too difficult or vulgar for the Fitzwilliam. One of the areas I am looking forward to improving is our representation of 20th and 21st century art. We have important modern pictures and sculpture, but we need to improve its quality and breadth. We should do this by gift and bequest: Cambridge as a centre of learning and an enjoyable place to visit it has few rivals. Visitors are astonished by the range and excellence of our collections - how wonderful for some great benefactor of contemporary art to know that their collection will sit alongside our superlative Old Masters, or Impressionist pictures, to be admired and studied by students, residents and visitors for centuries to come."
"However, we can only encourage collectors to leave their treasures to the Museum if we have the room to display them, and if our existing collections are beautifully and intelligently displayed. I want to make the place sing."