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The Fitzwilliam Museum

Celebrate The Fitzwilliam Museum’s 200th anniversary and discover the secrets of afterlife in ancient Egypt

4 March 2016 | London Calling

This year, Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum turns 200 years old, and it’s certainly looking great for its age! The museum is holding a number of exciting celebrations over the year, including workshops, events and stunning exhibitions, kicking off with Death on the Nile, a look into ancient Egypt that will take you through thousands of years of funerary.

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is one of the country’s most important museums as well as the shiniest feather in The University of Cambridge’s cap, housing over half a million works of arts and artefacts from antiquity to present day. Founded by Richard VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion in 1816, the museum started with £100,000 for ‘a good substantial museum’ and works from the viscount’s library and collection (including masterpieces by Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio), and has since become the finest small museum in Europe.

This year marks the Fitzwilliam’s 200th birthday, and the museum has chosen to celebrate the bicentenary with a year-long programme of festivities and events, including two major exhibitions inspired by the museum’s most beloved collections that draw a straight connection to the early days of the Fitzwilliam. This year, we will see exhibitions featuring Egyptian coffins from one of the museum’s first donations, illuminated manuscripts from Fitzwilliam’s original collection and regular harpsichord recitals inspired by Fitzwilliam’s love of music and composing.
 

Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt is the first exhibition to mark the museum’s anniversary – a very fitting way of kicking off the bicentenary celebrations. Just a few years after the museum’s opening, two University of Cambridge students donated a beautiful set of coffins belonging to a man named Nespawershefyt, effectively starting the museum’s collection of Egyptian artefacts in 1822, the very same year that Egyptology as a subject was born. A year later, Giovanni Belzoni presented the university with the sarcophagus lid of Ramesesses III that he had retrieved from the Valley of the Kings, and the museum’s collection has grown in importance ever since.

The exhibition aims to look past the most popular images of ancient Egypt as mummies and mythical deities with animal heads, and instead engages in an in-depth study of the funerary business in ancient Egypt. Through a remarkable collection of ancient Egyptian coffins, the exhibition explores the values and beliefs of the very real people who would have made and commissioned the coffins, and uncovers their deepest secrets.


Image Credit: Left: Face from coffin, with eyes and eyebrows inlaid, gilded, 1186-1069 B.C , Right: Cartonnage coffin of Nakhtefmut, Around 923 B.C : The Fitzwilliam Museum

To say that Death on the Nile required in-depth behind-the-scenes research would be an understatement, and the conservators approached the task somewhat literally and with acute attention to detail. In fact, the commitment to accuracy in the show is so extreme that all the sarcophagi on display are facing East to ‘see’ the rising Sun – a detail that the ancient Egyptians would have insisted upon.

The sarcophagi were studied extensively and subjected to all kinds of tests, from X-radiography to CT scans, leaving no stone unturned and exposing all the skeletons until they had no more secrets left to spill. The exhibition uncovers fascinating details and personal histories, from the 3,000 year-old fingerprints of a clumsy craftsman who moved the sarcophagus lid before the glazing was dry, to practice drawings hidden under layers of paint, and the discovery that wood was often recycled from looted coffins.


Image credit: Inner coffin lid of Nespawershefyt in visible-light induced luminescence (VIL) photography : The Fitzwilliam Museum

The exhibition builds on the museum’s existing collection, with some loans from the British Museum in London and the Musée du Louvre in Paris, showing variations in coffin design between notable men and simple workers, as well as showcasing the significant changes in burial fashions and conventions over the course of 4,000 years.

Access to the collections has been free since its conception, though initially museum entry was mostly reserved for university members. Today, the Fitzwilliam is an integral part of Cambridge’s cultural life, opening its doors to all and programming events that reach all over the city. The Fitzwilliam’s connections to academia are as strong as ever, and this exhibition brings to light the ongoing research carried out in partnership with The University of Cambridge. To commemorate this important milestone, a book on the museum’s full 200-year history – The Fitzwilliam Museum: a History – is being published this year to go along with a special exhibition exploring the Fitzwilliam’s past and present.

The year-long celebration is bound to be a special one, with plenty of events, lectures, workshops, concerts and activities to delight and inspire. What are you waiting for? Make this the year you visit!

Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt is open from 23 February – 22 May 2016. Entry to the exhibition is free. For more information please see the website.
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