Fitzwilliam Museum

Love the British Museum but find it a bit, well, big?

Then may I suggest Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum as a less daunting but equally fascinating alternative? Similar diverse collection stretching back centuries and spanning the globe, but small enough to 'do' in a morning and with much friendlier staff.

The Museum was founded in 1816, when the VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion bequeathed his art collection and library to the University of Cambridge. This generous gift laid the foundations for today's world class collection, enlarged over the years by a combination of bequests and a top drawer acquisition policy. Dubbed 'the finest small museum in Europe', the Fitzwilliam's treasure trove now encompasses wonders of the ancient world, a European art collection that's a who's who of famous names, a vast library of literary manuscripts, music and prints, a splendid armoury and a heck of a lot of porcelain.

Flanked by soaring columns and guarded by recumbent lions, the Museum building itself is like a mini BM, and stepping into the imposing entrance hall – all gleaming white statues, gilt and marble, you instantly feel that you are somewhere Important.

The burial of Nakhtefmut, a priest of Amun.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Elaine Macintyre

The ground floor houses the 'ancient' part of the collection, highlights of which include a beautifully laid out Ancient Egyptian section that portrays not just the mega bling of the great royal dynasties but also the minutiae of everyday life – a large raffia sandal that looks like something you'd buy at the beach is particularly touching.

The arms and armour are also impressive, featuring a fine array of mainly European weaponry, plus a splendidly creepy sculpture of a skeleton knight by Stuart Pears Wright, inspired by Matthew Lewis's late 18th century gothic shocker The Monk.

With such a wide-ranging collection, there really is something for everyone here – and while it's not the most child-friendly place I've ever visited, there are trails and colouring pencils for kids to make their own discoveries. So while it may not all be for you (room full of horrible porcelain figurines anyone?) you're bound to find something to delight you.

Special exhibitions when I visited (September 2018) included a glimpse into the lives of educated young ladies of the 16th century onwards through a display of samplers, or 'stitched documents', as they're eloquently described, and the fabulous Designers & Jewellery 1850 –1940 exhibition, which showcases some exquisite Art Deco and Art Nouveau pieces by the likes of Phoebe Traquair and Charles de Sousy Ricketts.

Jewellery by Phoebe Traquair (left) and Charles de Sousy Ricketts (right) on display in the Designers & Jewellery 1850 –1940 exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until 11 November 2018.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Elaine Macintyre

So all in all, a visit to the famous Fitzwilliam does not disappoint. But while it's the best known of Cambridge's museums, it's certainly not the only one in this city of invention, discovery and general intellectual over-achieving. The Scott Polar Research Institute offers a fascinating insight into life in the extremes of the North and South poles, and features some amazing artefacts relating to the struggles to reach them, and the lives lost along the way.

Sled-dog memorial outside the Scott Polar Research Institute.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Elaine Macintyre

The Museum of Zoology, recently rehoused in a new modern building, is a must-see if you like your crappy Victorian taxidermy – or indeed your beautiful modern taxidermy, as at the time of my visit it was home to an elegant display of birds by star taxidermist Jack Fishwick.

My new favourite animal, the Pink Fairy Armadillo.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Elaine Macintyre

The ground floor of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has two thought-provoking displays telling the stories of the archaeology of the area and the incredible haul of 11,500-year-old horned headdresses discovered at Star Carr in Yorkshire (although upstairs is more your standard faded ethnographical objects in cases, collected by earnest anthropologists over the years).

Horned headdresses from Star Carr, on display at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology until 30 December 2019.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Elaine Macintyre

Oh, and don't forget a pint in the Eagle on Benet Street, the pub in which Francis Crick and James Watson announced their discovery of the secret of life: DNA. Complete with their signatures graffitied on the wall, it's practically a museum itself.

Cambridge may be best known for its colleges, quads, backs and punts, but it's also a real haven for museum lovers. (I never got as far as the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, the Museum of Cambridge or the Whipple Museum of History of Science (although to be fair that's currently closed for a refurb) – two days is not enough!) So if museums are in your DNA, Cambridge has the secret to the perfect weekend.

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Elaine Macintyre

Elaine is the Content Manager in the Digital Media team at National Museums Scotland.
Twitter/Instagram @elainemacintyre