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Books and People Through Time: Exploring Viscount Fitzwilliam’s Library

This project is a pilot for a comprehensive investigation of Viscount Fitzwilliam’s (1745-1816) library, studying together the important collections of printed books, illuminated manuscripts, printed and manuscript music, and the albums of prints he personally assembled for the first time. It will bring together categories of material which have been examined and curated as isolated groups, rather than as a coherent, multifaceted collection that reflects the social world in which it was created. The research will enable us to develop a material and intellectual history of a great eighteenth-century library, bringing out its under-researched material culture – the physical books and their bindings – to complement existing knowledge concerning the textual and art-historical aspects of the collection. 

Research questions

This project will analyse the material culture of the library collection in the context of mid-eighteenth-century collecting and the networks the books represent. We will develop enhanced catalogue descriptions and attributions of bindings from the workshop of Edwin Moore, making the corpus at the Fitzwilliam Museum publicly visible and searchable for the first time through the Museum's Collections Explorer.  

We will publish a co-authored, peer-reviewed article on our findings, through the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, and host a workshop for fellow professionals to create a scholarly network, to discuss conclusions and establish the next steps. This network will include:

An important element of the discussion will be around exploring good practice in developing participatory work in interpreting the library for new audiences.

The pilot will provide a methodology for integrating conservation investigation techniques with historical inquiry and develop an interdisciplinary approach to the study of library collections, informing the larger project going forward.  We will develop a model for understanding book and library cultures and networks which will feed directly into a larger interpretative strategy designed to make the Founder’s Library accessible to Fitzwilliam Museum visitors as a unique museum library space in the UK.

The pilot project is funded by the Cambridge Humanities Research Grants scheme. 

Project team

Edward Cheese, Senior Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books

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