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Polychromy Revealed

The Fitzwilliam Museum holds a small but exceptional collection of about fifty medieval wood sculptures, largely polychrome, made across Western Europe c. 1300–1550. For the most part extremely fragile, most of the sculptures have never been exhibited and are largely unknown to the public and to scholars alike. We are currently planning a large-scale research project which will enable us to investigate, interpret, conserve and display the collection, ultimately transforming it into a resource that can be utilised for teaching, research and public engagement.

A ten-month pilot funded by a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant ran between January and October 2017, and had two main goals: (i) convene project team members and potential partners to scope and plan the large-scale project; (ii) pilot the analytical methodology we proposed to use to investigate the objects. Four objects were selected for a preliminary conservation treatment and non-invasive scientific analyses, which focused on the investigation of the sculptures’ internal structure; the identification of wood species; and the analysis of the painting materials (pigments and paint binders) and decorative techniques. Further analyses of microsamples revealed the stratigraphy and composition of both the original and later paint layers.

A grant from the newly established Arts and Humanities Impact Fund of the University of Cambridge is currently allowing us to run a series of activities aimed at (i) maximising the impact of the pilot project, which raised interesting methodological questions but also provided significant information about the four sculptures it focused on, and (ii) defining routes to impact for the large-scale project. These impact-focused activities represent an exciting departure from existing projects, by co-developing and testing new engagement methods through a series of collaborative events with practitioners from outside our discipline and with the general public. Activities are being developed along two main strands, in collaboration with the Digital Humanities Network

  1.  ‘Angels taking flight’ will disseminate the findings of the research carried out on a pair of fifteenth-century Kneeling Angels by creating historically accurate reconstructions and by including them in an online learning resource aimed at A-level students studying for an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
  2. ‘MI2’ will open a dialogue with scholars, NGOs, industrial partners and crafts/technology practitioners interested in three-dimensional digital modelling; making; interpretation of; and interaction with, cultural heritage objects and their replicas, in order to assess the state-of-the-art of research in these fields and to establish guidelines for the choice of suitable and affordable solutions, which will then be shared with other museums and cultural institutions. Museum audiences will also be involved and asked to respond to/interact with the outcomes of the initial phase of MI2 activities, in order to inform our methodology and choices for the Polychromy Revealed project 

Ultimately, we expect the Polychromy Revealed project to focus on the Fitzwilliam Museum's exceptional collection of medieval polychrome wood sculpture with the following aims:

  1. Increase our knowledge of this understudied portion of the collection, by undertaking in-depth technical analysis of the sculptures in order to reconstruct their material history, including original polychromy (and possibly function), subsequent modifications and present conservation needs
  2. Disseminate this information and increase the visibility of the collection via a dedicated, interactive digital resource which will allow a two-way exchange of information with academics, school students and the general public through a number of channels
  3. Open a dialogue with the public about the reconstruction of ancient polychromy

Project information

Project team

Dr Vicky Avery
Dr Miranda Stearn
Jo Dillon
Dr Kate Noble

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