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The hidden gems in Cambridge’s famous museums


By Alex Spencer


From a plastercast of a Greek boxer to Captain Oates's reindeer skin sleeping bag, Cambridge's museums offer a feast of weird and wonderful sights alongside some more famous exhibits. Alex Spencer discovered the treasures worth hunting out for those in the know.

The whale skeleton at the Museum of Zoology or the Rubens painting of The Death of Hippolytus at the Fitwilliam are some of the most well recognised sights in the Cambridge museum collections. But often some of the most unusual pieces in the collections don't receive the recognition they deserve. We asked the museums' curators about the brilliant exhibits they wanted visitors to discover.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The Trumpington Cross

Trumpington Cross (6885762)
Trumpington Cross (6885762)

This extremely rare piece of Anglo-Saxon jewellery was excavated in 2011 at Trumpington Meadows. The gold cross, inlaid with garnets is only 34mm in diameter, was buried with a teenage girl. Only five other similar crosses have been found in Britain.

Shaman’s coat

A young shaman from the Orochen people of Inner Mongolia (northeast China) worse this coat to access the spirit world. It was adorned with magical mirrors, figures of spirit animals and things that were significant to her and her family, including her father’s military uniform. When she died, still in her 20s, there was no one to take over the role of shaman. Eventually her father sold it to Cambridge anthropologist Ethel Lindgren in 1931.

Hand axe made around a fossil shell

This hand axe is around 100 000 years old, and was found near Thetford in Norfolk. The shell is much older. The handaxe has been carefully shaped around the fossil shell by the skilled maker. They decided to create the tool showing off the shell.

The Winchester Screen

A ‘hidden gem’ in the Museum is the central section of the choir screen from Winchester Cathedral, which has been built into the end wall of the second floor gallery of the Museum. The screen was designed by Inigo Jones and installed in the cathedral in 1637-40. It was removed in the 1870s, but was rediscovered by the architect of the Museum, T.J. Jackson, who worked the grand neoclassical arch into the museum when it was built in the 1910s.

The Polar Museum

Captain Oates’s sleeping bag

Sleeping bag (6469064)
Sleeping bag (6469064)

This reindeer skin sleeping bag was used by Captain L.E.G Oates during Captain R.F. Scott's ill-fated journey to the South Pole on the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova). It has been cut along the length to ease the entry of Oates' badly frostbitten leg. The bag was found on November 12, 1912 by the search party looking for the polar party. His body was never found after he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard to try and save his comrades.

British Arctic Expedition telescope

A telescope used on the British Arctic Expedition 1857-76 (HMS Alert and HMS Discovery) and the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04 (Discovery). Also taken to the North Pole on HMS Sovereign in 1976 and then into space on the US Space Orbiter Discovery in 1984.

Arctic Fire Balloon

Telescope (6469066)
Telescope (6469066)

This was used in an attempt to send messages to the missing Captain Sir John Franklin Arctic expedition aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The balloons were distributed from the air over a wide area of the Canadian Arctic, however Franklin and most of his men were tragically probably already dead before the first balloon was sent up.

Museum of Zoology

A dodo skeleton

Among the first objects to greet visitors as they enter the University Museum of Zoology is one of the most complete dodo skeletons in any museum in the world.

Dodos were driven to extinction in the 1600s, shortly after European sailors first arrived on the island of Mauritius: they were killed by the rats, pigs, dogs and goats that the sailors brought with them, as well as the sailors themselves.

Nearly all of the dodo remains in museums today were collected from a swamp in 1865, 200 years after the dodo’s extinction. After the discovery of a few bones, British school-teacher George Clark supervised the collection of hundreds more bones from the swamp: local Mauritians would feel for them in the mud with their feet. The discovery of so many bones allowed for the near-complete skeleton in Cambridge to be pieced together from the remains of many individual birds.

Darwin’s Beetle Box

Charles Darwin arrived in Cambridge to study in 1828, but he rarely attended his lectures as he was more likely to be outside beetling. He was an enthusiastic beetle collector and amassed a considerable collection during his time as an undergraduate in Cambridge. This box contains some of the beetles that Darwin himself collected. It includes a wide range of species, including many ground beetles.

Museum of Classical Archaeology

The Farnese Hercules, plaster cast

Museum of Classical Archaeology (6469057)
Museum of Classical Archaeology (6469057)

This huge figure of the hero Hercules towers over visitors to our small gallery, looking like his muscles have been blown up by a bicycle pump – he’s more than a bit ‘extra’… He stands looking weary, holding behind his back three of the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides – the viewer has to sneak a peek behind him to see that he looks so dog tired because he’s just completed the last of his labours, holding up the sky while the god Atlas fetches the apples on his behalf. The marble original, in Naples, is a third century CE copy of a much earlier fourth century BCE bronze sculpture by a Greek artist called Lysippos, now lost. It, too, was placed against a wall so that the apples were hard to see.

Terme Boxer, plaster cast

Museum of Classical Archaeology (6469059)
Museum of Classical Archaeology (6469059)

This Boxer has clearly already done several rounds in the ring: his face is battered and bruised, his ears and nose bloodied and his cheek already swelling from a well-placed right hook. Ancient boxing (pygmachia, literally ‘fist-fighting’) was a brutal sport, with no holds barred; the Boxer wears fur-lined gloves to protect his hands. The original, in Rome, is a rare surviving example of bronze statue from the ancient world: bronzes were highly prized, but were often melted down into new objects when they were no longer valued, so few have endured to today. This one is particularly special, because it features such complex polychromy. The lips, bloody wounds and even the nipples have been picked out in a copper alloy, which our cast replicates.

The Peplos Kore, plaster cast

Museum of Classical Archaeology (6469055)
Museum of Classical Archaeology (6469055)

The museum has two Peplos Korai, but they are not identical twins. One is a cast of the original, found on the Akropolis in Athens, missing an arm and with a chunk gone from the bottom of her skirts. The second is restored, not only with her broken parts repaired but also with an attempt to imagine what her original multi-coloured paintwork might have looked like, created in 1975 just for us. We now know that much of the classical sculpture which has been prized for its whiteness was probably painted, in colours which modern viewers now tend to find garish. There’s no guarantee that in her heyday, the original Peplos Kore looked like our painted one: although her paintwork was based on scholarly work, it now seems unlikely that such thick, matte paint would have been used to cover the entirety of her lovely, translucent Parian marble, for instance. But she stands as a reminder that our received ideas about the ancient Greeks can be a little misleading.

Frieze from the Choregic Monument of Lysikrates, plaster cast

Probably no one ever looks at this nondescript frieze hanging on the central divide; it is small and unassuming, certainly in comparison with others in our over-packed gallery. Those who do might find themselves confused, because why do these men seem to have fishy tails? The frieze tells the story of the time the god Dionysos was kidnapped by some pirates, whom he subsequently transformed into dolphins for their crimes. This cast is not an ‘original cast’ – it was not taken directly from the original monument but rather from another plaster cast. But the original, still display in situ on its monument in the open, is now so weathered that the cast preserves more detail than it does. Hiding in plain sight, then, in the very middle of the gallery, this cast is an unassuming treasure, demonstrating just one of the ways in which plaster casts preserve the past (ancient and more recent) in their own right.

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Coin hoard

The Cambridge Hoard. Most of the coins are silver pennies, which were the main currency of England until the Black Death, but there are also nine gold coins from the 1350s. (6469035)
The Cambridge Hoard. Most of the coins are silver pennies, which were the main currency of England until the Black Death, but there are also nine gold coins from the 1350s. (6469035)

Easily missed in Gallery 32 (off the Armoury) a Coin Hoard discovered in a Cambridge sewer shaft just 18 years ago.

In October 2000, a hoard of 1,805 silver pennies and nine gold coins was found by archaeologists in Chesterton Lane Cambridge. It had been buried in the 1350s, shortly after the Black Death wiped out a large part of the country’s population.

Bust of Queen Victoria

Bust of Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria. Gilbert, Alfred (British, 1854-1934). Carved white marble, over life-sized bust. Signed. Sculpted white marble, height 86 cm, 1887-1889. Victorian. (6469039)
Bust of Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria. Gilbert, Alfred (British, 1854-1934). Carved white marble, over life-sized bust. Signed. Sculpted white marble, height 86 cm, 1887-1889. Victorian. (6469039)

Sir Alfred Gilbert, sculptor of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, created this virtuoso monumental white marble bust of Queen Victoria as an ageing monarch in 1887-89. The foundation stone for the Museum was laid in 1837 – the very beginning of Victoria’s reign which ended with her death in 1901.

Coffin set of Nespawershefyt

This richly decorated set of two coffins, which would have been fitted one inside the other, were made for Nespawershefyt, who supervised the temple scribes and craftsmen workshops at the vast temple at Karnak in ancient Egypt. Look for the patterns, the pictures and the hieroglyphs in this fine example which dates from C. 990-969 BC. A highlight from the ancient Egyptian collection in Gallery 21.

An Impressionist winter scene

Impressionist painting (6469041)
Impressionist painting (6469041)

‘Snowy landscape at Eragny with an apple tree’ was painted by Camille Pissarro in 1895. It was painted from the large barn at the foot of his garden which Pissarro converted into a studio, and shows the warm tonalities of snow in sunlit conditions.

Kettle’s Yard

Alfred Wallis ‘Five Ships – Mount’s Bay’, c. 1928

Ships at sea were principal subjects for the English painter, fisherman and scrap merchant Alfred Wallis who painted from memory, regarding his paintings as an expression of his experiences. When the Art Fund asked the public to vote for their favourite British masterpieces in 2013, Five Ships – Mount’s Bay made it into the top ten. Alfred Wallis’s art works continue to evoke a feeling of being by the sea, combined with a nostalgic sense of a seafaring life of a former era.

Christopher Wood, Self Portrait, 1927

Kettle's Yard (6469052)
Kettle's Yard (6469052)

This remarkable painting underlines Christopher Wood’s status as a successful English artist in 1920s Paris. When he painted this Self-Portrait, Wood was still attempting to establish a personal style and make his reputation as an artist. The triangular-patterned jumper makes direct reference to Harlequin and, indirectly, to theatre, both popular themes in French art throughout the 1920s.

The colours and pattern of the jumper inspired Turner Prize nominated artist Anthea Hamilton to create a kimono with the same triangular motif on it for an exhibition in the Hepworth Wakefield in 2016.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska ‘Red Stone Dancer’, 1913-1914

This sculpture of a dancer was carved by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska between 1913-1914. Red Stone Dancer is one of the artist’s best examples of portraying movement through abstract shapes and planes. Like many artists working at the time, Gaudier-Brzeska was interested in non-western objects and artworks. He was particularly inspired by the objects and artefacts he saw in the British Museum, which influenced him to experiment further with different forms of abstraction.



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