The ultimate guide to Cambridge museums
Yes, I review the cafes and gift shops as much as I do the educational value.
As many of us return to Cambridge, we might find ourselves searching for new ways to blow off supervision work. If your New Year’s resolution was to be a more culturally sophisticated person (or if you’ve decided to make dark academia your new personality after watching Wednesday), The Tab’s got you covered.
Did you know that there are eight museums run by the University of Cambridge, and you can visit all of them for free? To help you figure out which ones you can be bothered to go to, I have dutifully traipsed around every single one and written judgemental comments about them.
When do they open? Are there pretty postcards in the gift shop? What even is Kettle’s Yard? I answer all these questions and more.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
Closed Monday, open 12 – 5 on Sunday and 10 – 5 on other days
This is the biggest and most well-known museum in Cambridge, so if you can only be bothered to go to one, pick the Fitzwilliam. The ground floor is filled with historical objects ranging from medieval armour straight out of Game of Thrones to ancient Egyptian mummies. Venture up the extremely Instagram-able staircase, and you’ll find a load of European paintings, including ones from famous artists like Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet. There’s also a nice-looking café and a very large gift shop full of postcards and tote bags for humanities students to base their personalities around.
Emilia Whitehead wrote a really lovely article last year on the cutest animals in the Fitzwilliam Museum, so check that out if you’d like something to focus on when you visit.
Closed Monday, open 11 – 5 on other days
I must have walked past Kettle’s Yard hundreds of times, but never made the effort to Google what it actually is, let alone go inside it. Kettle’s Yard is that mysterious cluster of buildings opposite Magdalene, at about the point up Huntingdon Road where I start to question why I picked a hill college.
Now I’ve finally been inside (and read the Wikipedia page), I can inform you that Kettle’s Yard used to be home to the artists Jim and Helen Ede, who would open their house each afternoon to let visitors view their art collection. They donated their house and all the artwork in it to the University of Cambridge in 1966. So, you can now visit both the original house and the adjacent art gallery. The current contemporary art exhibition, ‘Paint Like the Swallows sings Calypso’ is there until the 2nd of February.
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Closed Monday, open 12 – 5 on Sunday and 10 – 5 on other days
The ground floor documents the history of Cambridge, including the university. The skeleton of a Roman girl on display inspired Sylvia Plath to write the poem ‘All the Dead Dears’. (Hopefully, similar creative forces will inspire me to make this a cracking Tab article?) I did quite enjoy seeing some five-hundred-year-old glasses from college dining halls – maybe in a few centuries our wine glasses from formals will be in a museum?
Upstairs is a collection of items from the Pacific, Africa, America and Asia, many of which were acquired during the nineteenth century. The museum holds 102 objects taken during Captain Cook’s first voyage to Oceania. Perhaps the most famous items on display are a group of Benin Bronzes – plaques stolen from Benin City when British forces looted it in 1897. You can read about this museum’s approach to the repatriation of objects here.
Museum of Classical Archaeology
Closed Sunday – Monday, open 2-5 on Saturday and 10 – 5 on other days
I’m biased – I study Classics, so I automatically love this one. The Museum of Classical Archaeology is filled with casts of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, so you get to experience thousands of years of art in one room. Classicists often have supervisions here, but everyone is welcome to visit. You can check out their Instagram for updates on events such as sketching evenings.
Museum of Zoology
Closed Monday, open 12 – 4:30 on Saturday and 10 – 4:30 on other days
If you don’t find it too disturbing to stare into the hollow eye-sockets of an artificially preserved dead animal, this museum is a fun afternoon out. It’s like a trip to the zoo, if the zoo had been dismembered and squashed into jars of strange fluid or dangled from the ceiling like a disco ball. When I visited, volunteers also had a table of animal skulls for us to handle, which was really interesting.
The gift shop boasts a superb collection of stuffed cuddly toy animals large enough to rival the collection of real stuffed animals. It has a café, too, so you could definitely make this museum into a longer outing if you wanted.
The Polar Museum
Closed Sunday – Tuesday, open 10 – 4 on other days
I definitely felt like a polar explorer when I voyaged all the way from my hill college to this museum on Lensfield Road in 1° cold. Before visiting this museum, my knowledge of polar exploration was limited to a couple of Horrible Histories sketches I watched when I was ten. But this museum has lots of helpful display boards to make the objects really accessible to people who don’t know much about the topic, and to put the expeditions in the context of nineteenth and twentieth-century colonialist ideology. The items range from large equipment like boats and sleds to quirkier objects like dog collars and hot chocolate tins.
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences
Closed Sunday – Monday, open 10 – 4 on Saturday and 10 – 5 on other days
No, that’s not a typo. Someone really decided to call a Museum on the Downing Site ‘Sedgwick’ (maybe the same student-hating sadist who decided that the week would begin on a Thursday?).
Even if you’ve never been inside this museum, you’ve probably stood outside it in the Revs queue. Hundreds of fossils and minerals are labelled with fading cursive handwriting, for maximum dark academia vibes. Also on display are items from Charles Darwin’s Beagle expedition. What’s nice about this museum is that they have several objects from the UK – this plesiosaur is from Yorkshire!
Whipple Museum of the History of Science
Closed Saturday – Sunday, open 12:30 – 4:30 on other days
To be perfectly honest, the ‘science’ part of this museum’s name was not exciting me as much as the ‘history part’. But I enjoyed visiting this one much more than I thought I would – the galleries are filled with old-timey science equipment like telescopes and astrolabes and globes. An area upstairs is set up to look like a Victorian parlour, which is quite fun. It’s in the centre of Cambridge and not especially big, so it’s definitely worth popping in quickly if you’ve got some time to kill in town.
Ta-da! Maybe I’ve inspired you to visit some of these museums and broaden your intellectual horizons. Or maybe you’ve spent too long reading this article and no longer have the time to do anything but work.
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- Tab Tries: Pizza Pilgrims
- What if the Zoolander characters went to Cambridge?
- UCU announces first strike day for February
All images are the author’s own.