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In 1976 the Fitzwilliam Museum received a generous benefaction from the Master and Court of the Grocers’ Company to provide for an annual lecture ‘given by a person of suitable distinction’ on an Egyptological theme. Its purpose was to commemorate the life and work of Professor Stephen Glanville (1900–56).
Glanville had been a remarkable figure in Egyptology whose death, at the age of 56, left a great void. I.E.S. Edwards wrote, in his obituary of Glanville, 'no Egyptologist of the present generation in this country was loved and esteemed by so wide a circle of friends and colleagues' (Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 42 (1956), 99). At the time of his death, he held an Honorary Fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford, as well as being Provost of King's College, Cambridge (the first non-Cambridge person so elected in 500 years); he was also Herbert Thompson Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge, Chairman of the Syndicate of the Fitzwilliam Museum and Honorary Keeper of Antiquities at the Museum. In addition, he was also Chairman of Committee of the Egypt Exploration Society.
From 1933, when he had been appointed a Reader at University College London, he had firmly believed in the fundamental importance of using Egyptian collections to underpin the teaching of Egyptology, and he regarded the growth and use of the Fitzwilliam’s Egyptian collections as an essential part of his teaching in the University as Professor of Egyptology. In 1953 he was elected Master of the Grocers’ Company and it was a fitting tribute to him, both in that regard and in recognition of his association with the Fitzwilliam Museum, that the Glanville Lecture was established.
Since 1976, a Glanville Lecture has been given each year (list of speakers), sometimes augmented by a day of seminars. In recent years, income from the associated seminars has been used to support the Lecture, and the 2008 Lecture was the last to receive a subvention from the Grocers’ Company.
The popularity of the Lecture seems to have taken the Museum by surprise. The original venue for the Lecture was in the Hamilton Kerr Room, but over the years the audience grew in numbers to the point where people had to be refused entry because of lack of room. In 1981 it became necessary to move to one of the larger lecture rooms in Mill Lane, and the Museum has since that date regularly made use of University lecture rooms to accommodate the large audience the Lecture draws. In 1989, for example, the venue was changed to the Babbage Lecture Theatre (one of the University’s largest lecture rooms) due to the demand for seats. Its popularity continues today and it has been described variously as a ‘red-letter day in the Egyptological calendar’ and a ‘major event for Egyptological scholarship’.