Wunderkammer Trip – Cambridge

The first museum we encountered in Cambridge was the Sedgewick.

The Sedgewick Museum

Its main collection houses fossils, rocks and minerals in rows of beautiful antique wooden cabinets. As a part of Cambridge University, the museum’s main purpose is to educate and act as a research resource. Upon exploring the museum, I have to say the age of its displays certainly showed, not only in the appearance of the cabinets themselves, but the placement of the them along with the layout of the contents inside. All of it was very formal and uninspiring and I found it quite hard to engage with the contents because of this. Obviously the objects are displayed in such a way for ease of finding for researchers and the public but without further knowledge of the objects, I’m not sure how else they could be grouped. Perhaps bring the smaller fossils and rocks amongst the large fossil’s exhibits? There were some kite-like sculptures above the cabinets that added some much needed colour and playfulness to the space but I couldn’t find any information on them. Maybe some artist interventions are needed to revitalise this space?

We then moved onto the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, another extension of Cambridge University.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Similar to the Pitt Rivers, the museum houses artefacts made by people across the world and throughout human history, but unlike the Pitt Rivers the displays felt a lot more organised and easier to process. The museum had some very interesting pieces, one of which, the Zisha teapot, raised a point on conservation efforts made by museums.

Typically a museum’s role is to maintain the original condition of an object, however here the donor asked that the teapot be ‘seasoned’ by repeatedly pouring tea over the unglazed ceramic which would then be buffed into the teapot. This would traditionally happen at the end of a tea ceremony in China and the tea patina would not only increase the beauty of the teapot but also its authenticity and cultural value.

Another unusual aspect of this museum was its ‘visible storage’ cabinets, which offered a behind the scenes view at some of the objects the museum has yet to label and formally display. I think this is a much better alternative use of the space whilst an exhibition is being planned, which potentially could bring two different contexts to the same object once the final exhibition space is finished.

The final museum we visited in Cambridge was the Fitzwilliam.

The Fitzwilliam

The Fitzwilliam Museum is one of the greatest glories of the University of Cambridge and puts our own Cardiff Museum to shame, built around 100 years prior, its ornate grandeur is a real spectacle. On arrival, we had a quick run around the museum before meeting for a talk with one of the curators, Victoria Avery. She directed us to one of the more recent additions  to the museum, a newly restored Wunderkammer. The cabinet boasted over 40 hidden drawers and compartments and at the time of its creation was used almost as a piece theatre for igniting conversations. Victoria then mentioned how they had intended on producing a stop motion animation of the drawers opening to reveal further hidden ones and potentially also the objects held inside. I really praise this idea of adopting a digital techniques to get past the limitations of conservation, it would be quite sad to see such a charismatic piece become completely static behind glass.

Victoria also spoke about the many difficulties of being a curator which I had not considered before; it is not solely her decision where something goes but in fact she has many other voices to consider when deciding where to put an object. Some of these include the conservationists, the accessibility of wheelchairs and even special requests from the donor themselves. I was quite shocked to find that members of the public were actually so offended by the Spanish Baby Jesus figure being placed in the Italian Renaissance room that they felt the need to complain, as to me it seems like such an unoffending  piece and the surrounding paintings only prove to highlight the subtly painted surface of the sculpture. I really enjoyed hearing about how the curator team managed to overcome any challenges they were faced with and ended up curating new and exciting interventions, even those as simple as commissioning fake period flowers to display in a vase.

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