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History of the Building and Collections

After Viscount Fitzwilliam bequeathed his collection to the University of Cambridge, the University moved with great speed to house the collections and make them open to its members and the public. At first a temporary space was found in the site which is now the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.

A permanent site was purchased from Peterhouse in 1821 for £8,500 and a great architectural competition was held in 1834. Proposed designs for the Trumpington Street site included antique temples and even a huge Gothic church complete with tower.

But finally an elegant neo-classical design by George Basevi (1794–1845) was selected. This was completed by Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863) after Basevi’s death in October 1845.

On 6 July 1842, a grand ball was held in the unfinished upper galleries of the Museum to celebrate the installation of the duke of Northumberland as Chancellor of the University. 1,600 people took part, dancing all night in rooms adorned with a profusion of hot-house plants, the unfinished walls hung with white and crimson drapes.

In 1848, thirty-two years after the original bequest, the Fitzwilliam Museum opened to members of the University and to members of the public three days a week.

Under the aegis of its 13 directors the building has been constantly added to and now occupies over double the original 1848 footprint.

The first major addition to the building was in 1921, following the bequest of the Museum’s first great benefactor, Charles Brinsley Marlay. Marlay died in 1912 and left to the Museum an astonishing variety of objects including illuminated manuscripts, paintings, prints and drawings, rare books and precious bindings, European and East Asian pottery and weapons, silver, bronzes, glass, ivories, enamels, jewellery, Japanese lacquer and netsuke, furniture, carpets, and tapestries.

£80,000 was given to extend the building, and although the designs were ready shortly after Marlay’s death the building works had to be delayed until after the First World War.

Further extensions were added in 1931, 1936, 1966 and 1975. The last was in 2004: the Courtyard Development added conservation studios, exhibition spaces and modern visitor facilities.

In the 1970s, the bequest of a building and endowment by the late Sir Hamilton Kerr resulted in the establishment of the Hamilton Kerr Institute (HKI), at Whittlesford outside Cambridge. The HKI was established as the Museum’s paintings conservation department, to provide postgraduate training for paintings conservators and to pursue research into the conservation of easel paintings, painting techniques and materials, and related fields.

From Lord Fitzwilliam’s original bequest, the collections have continued to grow by generous gifts that continue to this day.

Among other major benefactors to the Museum have been:

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