The Perse School

The 42 Lecture Series

28 Sep 2011

The second lecture this term was given by Dr Kate Cooper, curator of the new Greek and Roman gallery at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

Dr Cooper took the audience through the 18 month long process that transformed the former gallery from the 1960s, explaining the challenges presented and the aims of the redesign.

First of all Dr Cooper outlined the motivations behind the project: rejuvenation, emphasising the gallery’s architecture and updating security and conservation. The aesthetic considerations were balanced by the need to ensure that artefacts were safely displayed in airtight, climate controlled cabinets and by the restrictions experienced due to the building’s grade one listed status.

Dr Cooper described the major changes made to the layout of the gallery. One particular flaw of the old gallery was that its layout encouraged people to use the Greek and Roman gallery as a connecting corridor between the Egypt and Cyprus galleries. Her solution to this was to create a ‘circulation pattern’ by placing large Roman Marble sarcophagi in the central corridor to encourage people to wander into the side corridors, under the columns, which had formerly been closed off by display cabinets creating bays.

Next, Dr Cooper moved on to describe how the collection was arranged. She pointed out the challenges of working with a very eclectic collection which is not necessarily representative of all styles, ages and types of artefact: the trick is to emphasise the strengths of the collection and detract from the areas which are lacking. The collection is arranged largely chronologically but there are instances where Greek and Roman items are mixed in order to show how the Greek styles influenced later Roman work. One particular example of this is the sculpture collection. Often Roman sculptures were direct copies of a Greek original so displaying them together informs visitors about the cultural interplay between these great civilisations.

Dr Cooper’s lecture was full of surprises. One item that particularly grasped the audience’s attention was her photograph of what can only be described as a Roman Swiss Army Knife. Sadly very little is known about its use; nonetheless to see a precursor to such an iconic device was remarkable. Another interesting fact revealed to the group was the practice of de-restoring artefacts. In the past artefacts were restored to make them look as they would have done when they were new. The restorers at the Fitzwilliam painstakingly undid this restoration work to show visitors to the collection the authentic pieces because they recognise the damage to an artefact as an integral and valuable aspect of its history. To the same end, the Fitzwilliam even displays fakes in order to demonstrate the practice of collectors in the past. In short, the gallery is not just an archive of Greek and Roman artefacts but a record of the practice of collecting and displaying the pieces and the people involved in all stages of an item’s history.

A key aspect in designing any gallery is catering to the different audiences that come to see the collection, ranging from school children to art historians and archaeologists doing important research. To this end, the labels describing the objects also feature their reference codes. Dr Cooper also described how each display case was themed around a ‘gateway’ object which introduced the over-arching theme for all the other pieces with it. They have also produced hand held information boards to describe what visitors are seeing as well as introducing ‘Meet the Antiquities Sessions’ where small groups can attend a presentation about a select collection of pieces and see them up close and ask an expert about their use and history.

Dr Cooper’s lecture gave a truly fascinating insight into the process of redesigning a museum gallery and revealed unexpected difficulties and considerations that influence a project of this nature. Furthermore, everyone was left with an overwhelming desire to pop down to the Fitzwilliam and take a peek.


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