Gulbenkian Prize Readers' Poll: The Fitzwilliam Museum

By Caroline Lewis | 01 February 2005
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Shows a hallway with a high slanted glass ceiling. There is a cafe on one side.

The Fitzwilliam raised £6 million for the Courtyard Development, to which the Heritage Lottery Fund added £5.9 million. Courtesy The Fitzwilliam Museum.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

Between now and March, judges will be visiting the museums shortlisted for the UK’s largest arts prize, the third Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year.

Here at the 24 Hour Museum, we want to know who you think should win the prize. Click here to see the full shortlist and vote for the museum you think should receive the £100,000, or read on to find out how the Fitzwilliam came to be on the shortlist.

For many, the name Cambridge University conjures up images of intimidating academic libraries and stuffy dons – not the most inviting atmosphere for those humble souls sans PhD. However, the university’s museum, The Fitzwilliam, has undergone a great overhaul that means visitors don’t need to be working on their thesis in Greek and Roman funerary sculpture to appreciate the collections of antiquities and artwork.

Shows a photo of a boy kneeling in front of a knight's armour, reading a label.

Fitz Kits help families make the most of their visit. Courtesy The Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Courtyard Development, completed in 2004, has attracted new audiences and improved the visiting experience for everyone. The development has not only reclaimed a redundant space but also triggered a revamp of services, transforming the museum as a whole.

“The Courtyard Development has achieved its aims: to increase access to the museum, both physical and intellectual,” says Margaret Greeves, Assistant Director. “It’s created more space and light, but we’re not just saying ‘isn’t this a lovely building’ — we’ve used this as an opportunity to revive, to revitalise our displays and add new services, such as the provision of more learning opportunities.”

The £12 million redevelopment has seen a previously dead space turned into four floors of much-needed additional galleries and facilities. The courtyard, formed by 20th century additions to the original 19th century building, now houses a new entrance, new galleries, education rooms and a lift to all floors. John Miller & Partners designed the new space, which received a £5.6 million HLF grant.

Shows a photo of an audience in one of the museum's rooms, at a concert.

Lunchtime concerts and lectures attract a regular audience. Courtesy The Fitzwilliam Museum.

One of the ways in which the Fitzwilliam’s collections have been made more approachable is the Fitz Kit for primary school-aged children. Children can take a journey round the museum with the kit, which contains clues to lead them in a hunt for objects. Parents have control of the answers.

“It’s an interactive and fun way of exploring the collections,” explains Margaret. “We wanted to make it fun and also empower the parents.”

For adults, labels have been enlarged, but contain less information. For more details about objects, visitors can pick up a gallery guide, free to borrow or 50p to buy. “The idea is that people might want to build a collection of them,” says Margaret. Large font booklets are available for users with disabilities.

Shows a photo of a woman using an eGuide in front of a painting.

The eGuides give users the option to listen to a lot or a little information. Courtesy The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Moreover, the Fitzwilliam has engaged with high-tech answers to providing interpretive information to visitors, by offering eGuides – PDAs that act as audio-visual guides. The handheld computers, donated by Toshiba and supported by NESTA, allow users to choose how much information they want to hear.

A rich web resource called Pharos has also been launched, offering the chance to explore and study the museum collections from home. The website, which provides a guide to the objects and artwork based on themes or time, is also available on terminals in the museum. As Margaret puts it: “There is now a variety of autonomous ways you can access information about the collections.”

Showsa photo of a woman sitting at a computer screen in the museum.

Pharos is available in the museum as well as on the internet. Courtesy The Fitzwilliam Museum.

One of the most important aspects of the redevelopment has been the provision of seminar rooms and studios that allow the museum to offer a range of activities and courses. There are also programmes in place schools and adult learners with special needs. The museum operates in partnership with other organisations to find the best ways to work with these groups.

“The Fitzwilliam has tried to relaunch, but it wasn’t just about the new space, it was about working in these partnerships,” Margaret says. She was particularly impressed by some dramatic works of art produced by individuals with Alzheimer’s. “We really are making things more accessible.”

So much so that the temporary exhibition that launched the new Courtyard in the summer of 2004, Lasting Impressions, attracted 53,000 people in less than 2 months. The museum overall sees more than 300,000 visitors in a year.

Shows a photograph of a group of people sitting nearby a Henry Moore statue in the grounds at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

A Henry Moore sculpture in the museum grounds. Courtesy The Fitzwilliam Museum.

To make sure these visitors really get the best out of the museum, the redevelopment included a recruitment drive to find the staff who would make the Fitzwilliam come alive.

“One can do all these things, but unless you’ve got the staff at the front of the museum, interacting with visitors – ” says Margaret. “We’ve recruited new staff, very good front of house staff. It couldn’t be done without their enthusiasm.”

The Fitzwilliam has certainly caught up with the times with its revamp, as visitors will pay testimony, but why does it deserve to win the Gulbenkian?

“Because of two things,” says Margaret: “we have demonstrated that we could put £100,000 to very good use and because a venerable institution with very important collections has remade itself in response to a 21st century audience.”

“It would be absolutely marvellous if our efforts were recognised,” she continued. “The money would be immediately put to good use, buttressing the education service.”

The 24 Hour Museum is conducting a poll to find out who our readers want to win the Gulbenkian Prize 2005.

To vote for the Fitzwilliam Museum, click here.

Between now and March, we will have features on each of the shortlisted museums, so if you haven’t decided who to vote for yet, make sure to read all about it on 24 Hour Museum.

To find out more about the Gulbenkian Prize, click on this link to visit the website.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: