Greece and Rome at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Thanks to the work of Dr Lucilla Burn and her colleagues, there is a highly acclaimed, permanent exhibition displaying a wonderful host of Greek and Roman artefacts at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge. The exhibition has been heralded for its excellent design and for the way in which it engages the general public and the academic community.

The innovative re-design of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Greek and Roman artefacts was made possible by an AHRC Research Grant, awarded in 2008. As part of the project Dr Lucilla Burn invited colleagues from the Cambridge Classics Faculty; Professor Mary Beard, Professor Robin Osborne and Dr Carrie Vout, to help assist in re-displaying the Fitzwilliam’s Greek and Roman objects.

The project team has created a unique exhibition design, significantly different from most museum displays of Greek and Roman antiquities. The design focuses on providing a wide range of object histories, continually drawing visitor’s attention to the functions of the objects displayed and the importance of when and where they were found.

The Greek and Roman Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum, re-displayed with support from the AHRC in 2009-10
The Greek and Roman Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum, re-displayed with support from the AHRC in 2009-10

The exhibition has given museum visitors a greater comprehension of ancient Greece and Rome, and has helped to communicate some of the questions that are the subject of current academic research. Visitor feedback regarding the collections has been very positive, demonstrating high levels of enjoyment and enthusiasm for the gallery. A visitor survey has shown that the exhibition has helped to give people a new appreciation of the topics displayed and improved their understanding of the ancient world. One comment noted that the new display ‘weaves together miraculously well themes of conservation, authenticity, histories of collection, the meaning of objects and the history of Greece and Rome’.

In what is clearly an excellent example of collaboration between a Museum and a University, this project has also had a major impact on the way classical Archaeology is taught in Cambridge. The exhibition has encouraged teachers to base classes in the museum and helped strengthen existing links between the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Faculty of Classics.

The project also led to an innovative programme of live public engagement, allowing the University of Cambridge to share expertise with a public audience. This helped to increase the knowledge and understanding of at least 600 members of the public and also helped research associates hone their communication skills.

Conservation interns Julie Chang and Rachel Weatherall engaging members of the public with objects from the Greek and Roman collections, summer
Conservation interns Julie Chang and Rachel Weatherall engaging members of the public with objects from the Greek and Roman collections, summer

The experience gained during the project has proved invaluable for continuing to sustain the impact of the display over the last five years and also to maintain the close links formed between the members of the original project team. When applying for an HLF grant, for example, in 2012, to acquire and communicate a major new acquisition of Roman sculpture, the Lansdowne Relief, the contacts formed during the project enabled the Museum to call on a broad range of expertise to create a programme of public and academic engagement with the Relief. The experience of working in the Museum on the Greek and Roman gallery also encouraged Dr Vout to propose an exhibition that has been shown at the Fitzwilliam in autumn 2015, ‘Following Hercules’, which is one output of a British Academy-funded research project.

The Greek and Roman Exhibition at the Fitzwilliam museum has reached many people, and continues to do so; it has helped to spread valuable knowledge and understanding about the ancient world, benefiting both academics and the general public and creating valuable collaborations between the museum and other organisations.