The Fitzwilliam Museum

March’s Bookshop of the Month takes us to central Cambridge to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum Shops, which offer an impressive selection of books, souvenirs and gifts inspired by the world-renowned Fitzwilliam Museum. With its vast collection of over half a million priceless works of art and artefacts, Fitzwilliam Museum is the principal museum of the University of Cambridge. To get some more insight into this vibrant bookselling space, we spoke to the shops’ manager, Louise, about the Fitzwilliam Museum Shops place within Cambridge University and the historic city where it’s all based.

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1. The Fitzwilliam Museum was founded over two centuries ago. How has this rich legacy influenced your bookselling vision?

I am incredibly lucky to have such a fantastically diverse and many-layered collection to influence my book buying. The Fitzwilliam Museum houses a world-renowned collection of over half a million beautiful works of art, spanning centuries. Artefacts from Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Cyprus sit alongside European, Islamic and Asian treasures. Textiles and fans, furniture and clocks, coins and medals, arms and armour, manuscripts, music, prints, drawings and paintings. The diversity and breadth can sometimes be overwhelming alongside my desire to highlight as many different facets of the collection all at once. I would need a lot more shelf space!

2. What is the history of the Fitzwilliam Museum Shops? How do the exhibitions and collection displayed at the Museum inform your buying?

We are part of Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises, a charitable company owned by the University of Cambridge and set up to support the Fitzwilliam Museum and other Departments of the University. We started out as a small concession stand here at the museum in 1974, selling a selection of postcards and pencils, which has grown to a large open plan area in the Courtyard extension, next to the Museum’s Cafe. I’m pleased to say we still sell postcards and now a lot more besides…

That first stand has evolved into four shops across Cambridge, The Courtyard Shop, the Cambridge University Botanic Garden Shop, The University of Cambridge Museums Shop on Kings Parade and our latest space at the Museum of Zoology, which opened in 2018. Our stock at the Courtyard is hugely influenced by the Museum, the permanent collections and exhibitions, with an enjoyable and eclectic mix of art, history, literary favourites, seasonal trends, and the city of Cambridge.

3. What do you want the Fitzwilliam Museum Shops to bring to the museum experience and to the Cambridge University campus as a whole?

A visit to a museum, whether it’s a day out for the family, a school trip, academic research, or just a shelter on a rainy day, can be a wonderful thing, and I hope that our shop adds to the whole experience.

Our aim is to inform, inspire and amuse. I like to be able to provide something for all our visitors with titles for adults and children; a light introduction, a detailed and authoritative text, or an irreverent pastiche. I hope the books we choose will remind you of a happy experience in the Museum or in Cambridge, perhaps teach you a little more about the fantastic things you have seen and hopefully encourage you to come and have another look!

4. What sort of books do you find your customers are most interested in? Do they generally correlate with the Fitzwilliam Museum’s featured exhibitions?

Our books cover a huge range and I take a lot of pleasure sourcing material to cover as much of the permanent collections as we have room for. The most popular titles do tend to cover the most visited areas of the museum, ancient civilisations, medieval armour and manuscripts, Renaissance and Impressionist paintings are always top of the list.

The real fun, however, comes from choosing the stock for an exhibition, where the focus is beyond the usual and we are able to delve deeper into well-loved subjects or branch out into little known areas. This is where I find the work of our book reps to be invaluable, it would be a lot harder without you!

Our current main exhibition Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800 has been particularly interesting. A multi-sensory exhibition presenting novel approaches to understanding the history and culture of food and eating. From flamboyant and sumptuous banquets, to contemporary and controversial issues of the origins of food, overconsumption and our relationship with animals and nature. Yale has provided us with a wealth of titles for this and many other exhibitions and subjects.

The current favourites are from The Global History, Edible Series range, each title explores the history of a particular food. I must admit to have been underwhelmed at first glance by a rather unexciting cover, but they are packed with fascination once you get inside. Just goes to show that sadly I do have to judge covers, but thankfully gems can be found beneath! One of the first lessons I had to learn as a book buyer.

5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shops in the coming months that you’d like to share with us?

Our Feast & Fast exhibition will be closing on the 26th of April and the atmosphere in the museum always tends to be a little bit more exciting at the open and close of a big exhibition, with lots of events scheduled.

During the Cambridge Literary Festival we will be hosting a book signing on Saturday 18 April to coincide with Frances Spalding talking to Celia Paul about her book Self Portrait.

Our two spring shows highlight how adults and children view pieces from our collection in two very different exhibitions.

Inspire – A celebration of children’s art in response to Jacopo del Sellaio’s Cupid and Psyche: This exhibition of art made by primary school children celebrates the creativity of local schools and teachers and champions the on‐going importance of cultural learning for young people at a time when the arts in schools are increasingly under threat. (10/12/2019 to 22/03/2020)

Virtue, Vice & the Senses: Prints 1540 – 1650 – A look at the spread and development of prints representing abstract qualities such as the Five Senses, Seven Virtues and Deadly Sins. (17/03/2020 to 14/06/2020)

I am now looking ahead for stock to compliment our two summer exhibitions, Gold of the Great Steppe, and The Human Touch. Opening at the end of May and June each promises to be a hugely exciting show with extravagant launch events and of course some really interesting reading inspiration.

Here I’m afraid I will have to leave you hanging, as further information is yet to be announced. If you’d like to know more you will just have check-in online or better yet come and see us!