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Luke Syson: new director of the Fitzwilliam on 'jaw-dropping' museum revamp




This week marks the great unveiling of the revamped main gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the first chance to see the influence of its new director, Luke Syson.

Most famous for curating the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery where the world’s most expensive painting, the Salvator Mundi was revealed, Luke took over the reins at the Fitz earlier this year.

Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum in the newly refurbished gallery. Picture: Keith Heppell. (18783638)
Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum in the newly refurbished gallery. Picture: Keith Heppell. (18783638)

He came following a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he had been chairman of European sculpture and decorative arts since 2012.

Now moving into his eight month as director of the Fitzwilliam, Luke says: “One of the nice things about coming here was discovering, as I already knew from my own experience, what a truly beloved museum this is locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

“We are having lots of discussions about how we make sure a place that is really beloved can grow in ways that make it more exciting, more powerful, more enjoyable and for as wide and diverse a visitorship we can possibly reach. At the same time we don't want to in any way damage or disrupt the things that make people so love the Fitz.”

Luke’s appointment was seen as a coup for the Fitzwilliam Museum but until now he has spoken very little about his move to Cambridge. In an interview with the Cambridge Independent he revealed his theme for the next 12 months at the museum and the impact of the gallery refurbishment.

The Fitzwilliam Museum, the portico at night.. (18785069)
The Fitzwilliam Museum, the portico at night.. (18785069)

The Fitzwilliam’s grandest gallery, at the centre of the historic Founder’s building, re-opened yesterday (Tuesday, October 8) restored to its majestic splendour after a refurbishment project lasting two years and has been hung under the guidance of the new director.

Luke says: “The room itself is a very grand statement about what museums in the 19th century aspired to be and by restoring it in the way we have, I think, it's making a grand claim for what museums could be and should be now.”

Following the restoration he hopes the improved space will wow visitors. “I hope that to some degree people’sjaws will drop because it's absolutely magnificent and it is hung with magnificent pictures,” he says, “I hope that is the first response.”

“Sometimes we need our moments of awe and wonder that take us out of ourselves and I think this is a space that will do that.”

Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Picture: Keith Heppell. (18783707)
Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Picture: Keith Heppell. (18783707)

Dsigned by the architect George Basevi (1794-1845), it is widely considered to be one of the finest museum interiors in the world. One distinguished former director of the Louvre called the Fitz “the greatest small Museum in the world”.

Behind the closed doors of the main Gallery, the Grade I listed ceiling with its ornate plasterwork and casts of the Parthenon Frieze at lower lever have been cleaned, restored and repainted revealing the crisp decorative detail.

In the gallery, immense grandeur and an intimacy of scale come together. At eye-level, the transformation is no less impressive. Gallery walls, clad in a distinctive bright red fabric since the 1970s, have been stripped and re-covered with a sumptuous new wall covering that echoes the colour adopted by Basevi’s successor, Edward M Barry (1830-1880), for the magnificent Founder’s Entrance.

“This is really one of the great museum spaces in Britain,” says Luke.

“It is extraordinarily grand, but over the years it had started looking tired - to put it politely - and there was also some major work that needed to happen on the fabric of the roof.

“Putting those things together, we realised we had a great opportunity to think about this room at the heart of the Fitz and present it anew, celebrating both our great traditions but also thinking about modern ways of displaying the works that will be shown there.”

Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum in the newly refurbished gallery. Picture: Keith Heppell. (18783637)
Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum in the newly refurbished gallery. Picture: Keith Heppell. (18783637)

A highlight of the new hang will be a magnificent group of floor to ceiling portraits by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), and Daniel Mytens (c. 1590- 1647/48)- the dominant painters at the English court in the first decades of the 17th century. They have been lent by the Trustees of the Rt. Hon. Olive, Countess Fitzwilliam’s Chattels Settlement, by permission of Lady Juliet Tadgell. Other pictures include masterpieces owned by the Fitzwilliam, rehung in the gallery that shows them to their best effect.

“Sometimes when you do work like this pictures that might feel quite familiar become really startling and revelatory even for the people who know them best by the way they are lit and by the way they are explained,” says Luke.

He adds: “It's a great emblematic project for a building looking back over 200 years but also very much looking forward.”

“The amazing plasterwork ceiling which has been thoroughly cleaned. Before, it looked a bit kind of depressed in the way that old plaster can and now its dazzling white as it climbs into the sky. it is extraordinary, including a cast of the Parthenon frieze.

“We also have a fantastic new colour for the walls, which had become this kind of weird pinky red fading over time. It was not a happy background for pictures and had the ghosts of where pictures had hung in the past so it was very patchy and odd looking. Now it's a rich burgundy maroon colour that really takes some of the colours from the Founders entrance and moves them into this space. It’s now a perfect background for pictures and has a new lighting system. I mean, they look astonishing. I have been hanging pictures for 30 years nearly and I have rarely seen pictures come alive in a way that they have here.”

Luke Syson joins the Fitzwilliam Museum from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Pictures: Fitzwilliam Museum. (18665071)
Luke Syson joins the Fitzwilliam Museum from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Pictures: Fitzwilliam Museum. (18665071)

Obviously delighted with the results that have restored a spectacular space, he adds: “It's really a celebration and an examination of how the British have chosen to represent themselves and think about portraiture and nature for nearly 300 years with the art in that room.”

An idea Luke has brought with him from working in other museums is to have an annual “theme” that informs all the exhibitions that year.

The theme he has chosen to launch this autumn at the Fitzwilliam is Sensual/Virtual. Luke explains: “What this theme is about is helping people to really look and think about the works of art and material culture that we have at the Fitz. I find sometimes that asking a question and planting a seed can really stimulate conversations around works of art.”

Many of the exhibits on show in the gallery will have new ‘behind the label’ stories where visitors will be able to scan a QR code or tap their smart phone on an NFC chip to access new and complementary information about the Sensual/Virtual theme.

Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Picture: Keith Heppell. (19228646)
Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Picture: Keith Heppell. (19228646)

Luke says: “We’re asking how we enjoy and experience works of art of all kinds through our senses and a debate that goes back over centuries as to whether sometimes that kind of enjoyment cuts out the intellect and whether these sorts of experiences can be too powerful or sexy or whatever and get in the way of thought.

At the same time we are also thinking about how some of those sensory experiences can be recreated through artificial means.

Nowadays we associate the virtual with things that are online but of course anything that tries to copy or evoke a real experience using paint or music or whatever is also a virtual experience. So, how those two words combine in works of art where we are invited to think about the rustle and the smoothness of silk or the sound of music, but we can actually hear that music or hear that silk, is really interesting.

I think lots of works of art depend on those two words - sensual and virtual - so just getting us to think about what it is that we are feeling and how it is that the artist made us feel that way through artificial means is what this theme is all about.”

The way the museum will explore the theme includes a recording of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which will be available to visitors as they look at the manuscript for the poem.

It will also examine fabric textures in paintings and musical sounds implied by a piece of art. And it will ask how an artist can bring to life a person for us who is long dead or evoke a place.

Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Picture: Keith Heppell. (19228649)
Luke Syson from the MET, the new Director at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Picture: Keith Heppell. (19228649)

Luke says: “How does and artist make us feel we are there? The answer is often through giving us sensory experiences that feel real even if they are not. They want us to understand what the clothes they are wearing might feel like if you touched them or give you a really powerful sense of what they might say if they spoke. We’re asking what artists do to make someone who is not really there feel as though they are completely in your presence and you are in theirs.

“We are trying to show the kinds of things around that we might do through virtual reality or holograms have always been part of the equipment and arsenal and aims of a great artist that they have always been to some degree at least persuading us that something that is not real, that they have created is true.”

The theme is further explored through Seeing Sound, also opening this week. The show asks, can we listen to a painting? This collaborative exhibition features objects from three of the Museum’s five departments. Notable exhibits are the five autograph musical manuscripts by Brahms, Stravinsky, Handel and Handle enthusiast, Lord Fitzwilliam, the founder of the Museum. The show also features works by Rossetti, Renoir and Picasso which demonstrate the ways in which artists and composers have engaged in a dialogue between sight and sound.



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