CHAMPION OF THE REMARKABLE. Luke Syson is Director and Marlay Curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University since 2019.  From antiquity to the present day, the Fitzwilliam houses a world-renowned collection of over half a million beautiful works of art, masterpiece paintings and historical artefacts.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Luke Syson, how would you describe the Fitzwilliam Museum?

The Fitzwilliam is very different from the museums I’ve worked in before – the Met, the National Gallery in London, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum – because it’s a university museum. A little over 200 years old, it was founded by the bequest of the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam. In many ways it’s a very traditional museum. The great 19th century portico, the extraordinary entrance hall, the pictures and furniture, sculptures and archaeological objects are arranged in cabinets and cases and hung on the walls in ways that evoke traditional country house hanging. The Fitzwilliam covers the arts and archaeology of what was deemed to be the civilised world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so primarily Europe but with nods to Asia and to Egypt.

You were the curator of medals at the British Museum for many years?

Yes, I started my career in the British Museum Coins and Medals Department, and we have a great collection here too, nearly 250,000 coins and medals and banknotes. It’s not an area where one can assume that the public will be interested, so it was the beginning of my sense that you have to really champion your collections rather than assume their importance. You have to find the stories, the hooks, the questions, the narratives that engage people who otherwise might wonder why they should bother with these little things.

There are some very important Egyptian treasures in the Fitzwilliam. Do your visitors love Egyptology?

It’s absolutely one of our most popular areas, and we have some really interesting work going on around the scientific examination of our coffin collection, which has been demonstrating the re-use of the coffins in rather unexpected ways. Our greatest treasures are the sarcophagus lid of Pharaoh Ramesses III, the bottom part of which is in the Louvre, and this extraordinary coffin set for the scribe Nespawershefyt, five pieces which were excavated at Karnak and came to us just two years after the museum was founded in 1816. That’s been demonstrated to have been remade from an old coffin that was presumably looted from an earlier tomb. For me this is exciting new territory. My area has always been post-mediaeval art and so learning about archaeology is a great source of energy and inspiration.

“How we make the works of art speak to all these different audiences at the same time is a challenge.”

Luke Syson

The Portico Entrance to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

Luke Syson, what is the difference between a university museum and other museums?

A museum like ours provides a bridge between the academic community and the audiences that come and visit us, and it’s a two way bridge. We’re beginning to make sure that the research around our collections, both by our curators but also by university academics, is informed by what audiences will enjoy. The real thing that differentiates a university museum from others is that balance between a really large academic community – much larger than most museums can contain within themselves – and this wide public, using our extraordinary collections as the material for further research and also for seduction, for ideas that can be presented in ways that are compelling and exciting for a large public.

Is this part of how you are adapting the concept of a museum for today? 

Most museums in Britain and North America were founded with a clear sense of purpose that communities would be bettered by having a temple of the muses in their midst. A lot of those assumptions, made by a kind of elite, have pervaded the way museums think of themselves ever since. In my recent Giles Waterfield Lecture titled “What are University Museums for?” I made the comparison to a handing out of gruel in a work house. As a radical traditionalist I still firmly believe that the Western Canon artists – represented at the Fitzwilliam by such as Titian, Monet, Perugino, Rubens, Poussin and so forth – are exploring extraordinarily important human issues, but we can’t talk about those artists simply in the way that we used to as “great”, because their work contains complications. Tarquin and Lucretia shows the rape of Lucretia, and therefore nowadays demands explanation of how Titian is tackling the theme of violence against women. Poussin shows the scene of Extreme Unction, and as a result we can think about how he explores this theme of death that’s common to all humanity. It’s also important that we ensure that our exploration of the traditional canon is expanded, by looking at works of art that have not traditionally been shown in museums – women artists have been obscured or denied a presence – and that we’re looking at the art of the whole world rather than at European art in isolation. What we haven’t done very well as museums anywhere is involve our publics in asking them what they would like to feel, to experience, what they would want museums to be. As a result museums can feel remote and isolated within communities rather than sitting centrally within them.

There are students at Cambridge University from all over the world, and they would like their own cultures represented and explained in the museum?

Cambridge is in its own way a world city, both because of the student population, but also the academic population, and increasingly life sciences, digital and other technology. We’re known as Silicon Fen because the focus of the digital business in Britain is now here. How we make the works of art speak to all these different audiences at the same time is a challenge, and in a globalized digital world one that we share with other museums – national, local, regional, university – across Europe and North America.

You were the head curator of the recent Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece exhibition at London’s National Gallery. Is the Italian Renaissance still one of the pillars of art that people want to see and learn about in museums and exhibitions?

Absolutely, and deservedly so I would hope. My own origins are Italian Renaissance. I love that moment when art takes on that balancing act between how do you represent the mythic, the spiritual, the extraordinary, but make it human and make those experiences feel real and tangible. Working on Leonardo was the greatest experience of my life from that point of view. He observed nature and the world around him like nobody else had ever done in any part of the world, but did so not just with the spirit of pragmatic science but also with the idea of making images that were supremely beautiful, that were otherworldly, that could take you into a spiritual space.

“Tact and sensitivity seems to me to be an important thing.”

Luke Syson, controversially you included his Salvator Mundi whose attribution is contested?

It is a fascinating story. I was there at the beginning of it and I’m very proud of its inclusion in the National Gallery exhibition after the conversations and due diligence that we did by talking to other scholars and getting their opinions. I still believe that it’s by Leonardo. I wish it were on public view so that people could actually judge this for themselves, because it has disappeared since it was sold at Christie’s and so the normal to and fro in the academic world of people standing in front of it and discussing it has become impossible.

In the Renaissance the artists were extraordinarily good painters and drawers but they were also scientists, architects, mathematicians, experts in theology etc. Contemporary artists are not usually so universal. Is that why globally people are interested by that specific period?

Contemporary artists are called upon to be slightly different people within our society than those artists, although that history of individual production ideas, of style, begins in the Renaissance in a way that we would still recognize it today. It’s true that Michelangelo wrote poetry. Titian understood clearly the Greek and Roman myths, even if he didn’t himself read Latin, there’s a profound understanding that goes into these works. Perhaps the understanding in the contemporary world is of different issues and different modes, but what unites them is still that sense that it’s one person looking at the world and the spiritual universe as well as an individual thinking about how to represent his or her ideas and from the point of view of their own experience. That has a long legacy in today’s art world, and that’s one of the reasons why the fascination for those artists, and perhaps for Leonardo in particular, is international.

How do you deal with the fact that some images just cannot be exhibited any more without explanation?

People who are showing them, museum curators, directors and so on, need to be aware, more aware than they have been, of what these subjects are, how they speak to people who might not know the names of these artists but can see exactly what’s going on. If we’re going to continue to value works of art of this kind, we have to recognise that they are more problematic than historically we’ve necessarily noticed or wanted to realise. Now, that doesn’t mean to me that they are cancelled, it makes them richer, it makes them more exciting, it makes them more complex, it makes them more open to discussion of different kinds. Tact and sensitivity seems to me to be an important thing. For example, when the Rijksmuseum did a show on slavery and the history of enslavement from a Dutch point of view, they were very careful to talk to communities whose ancestors had been directly affected by that history, so that their own interpretation was tempered by these conversations and so that they were also, to some degree, handing over that sense of absolute authority.

These days many people go to a museum to take a selfie with an iconic painting, they don’t really visit the rest of the museum?

There are these pilgrimage objects but a good museum takes advantage of those because it brings in your visitors. Once you’ve got people there, that’s the moment where you can begin your dialogue, where you can start doing the thing that’s exciting or surprising, where you can look at things afresh in ways that might actually draw people’s attention to something they didn’t come in to see. I always ask my curators, when they’re pitching a project to me, “Why should we care if we don’t care? What’s the narrative here that’s going to hook people? And what’s the way of showing something that’s going to make people excited?” That can be an unexpected juxtaposition, or it could be a label that draws attention to something that otherwise people wouldn’t have noticed. It could be a range of things, but the advantage of the museums that have those objects is that they can bring people in. And then that’s when the magic can begin.

Luke Syson

Luke Syson: The Egyptian Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge © Martin Bond

Luke Syson

Luke Syson: The Greek & Roman Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Luke Syson

Luke Syson: The Founder’s Library at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambrdge, circa 1986

Luke Syson

Luke Syson: Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Luke Syson

Luke Syson: 2022 David Hockney exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Luke Syson

Luke Syson: Hunger Strike Medal awarded to Constance Lytton, silver, 1910. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

“The university reaches the highest degree of excellence in many, many areas. Our museum should be doing the same.”

Luke Syson, is it the same for major exhibition, people come and then maybe they also visit the rest of the museum?

That’s right, and for exhibitions we should always be thinking what’s the big story here? We’re doing a show this autumn on coins, on the defacement of coins and banknotes going back 250 years, by the Luddites, by the suffragettes, by people during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, by people in the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter. It’s a story that takes us through 250 years of revolutionary history, of protest, of war, of conflict, and makes people think about how do we, as small, anonymous people take on the power of the state? Or how do we protest effectively in areas around the environment or race or areas where we still feel the weight of injustice. And so, yes, it’s an exhibition notionally about coins and banknotes but which is actually about politics, about struggle, about life.

How many people come to your museum from other British cities or other countries?

We are about 70% local and 30% of visitors from elsewhere in Britain or from abroad. The tourist industry in Cambridge has obviously changed a lot in the last few years, thanks to Covid. But the Fitzwilliam, despite the extraordinary collections that we care for, isn’t yet as fully appreciated, even by London which is an hour away, as it might be, so part of what we’re trying to do now is to do exhibitions that are distinctive, are unusual, are the kinds which will draw an intrigued crowd from not just locally, which is very important, but then also nationally and internationally. We’re a city, after all, and the university reaches the highest degree of excellence in many, many areas. Our museum should be doing the same.

Has it been very different for you to work in Cambridge?

Coming to the Fitzwilliam with its extraordinary collections and the range of material, not just actually at the Fitz but also in other Cambridge museums, gives me a sense of opportunity to champion something which I think is really remarkable. It’s already remarkable, but can become even more so. And so to that degree, it’s not that different. The difference is that question of audience, of knowing that we can’t absolutely rely on the hordes of people that come through the doors of the British Museum or the National Gallery or the Met. We need to attract them. Whereas what I’ve been doing in the past is attracting people to the part of the museum that I was responsible for or worked within.

Many of today’s great museum directors or curators have studied the Italian Renaissance at the Courtauld, but curators now also have to be more organised, managing practical problems and raising funds for the museum, so you’re also very busy in an entrepreneurial way. For the next generations is it still very important to have that Courtauld kind of preparation?

My answer is highly personal, which is to say that for me, having had that traditional training in the mid-1980s and then a curatorial career that took me through different areas of different kinds of collections, working from coins and medals through to paintings, through to sculpture and decorative arts has been enormously helpful, because it makes me very aware that at the core of what we do is what we have and what we show. The archaeological object, the piece of material culture, those are the things that spark the conversations. Everything we’re about is saying, why does this object exist? What does it say? How does it speak to us now? What was its function in the past? For me that means that my work is about an almost evangelical sense of how I share that pleasure, that joy of discovery, of the excitement of the thing, of the beauty of the thing sometimes, with as many people as I can reach. To do that you do need to have looked hard, thought hard, studied hard, around history of art or archaeology or whatever your discipline is. I hope that future generations of museum director continue to be inspired by the collections that they care for and present.

Luke Syson, thank you very much.