Tim Knox is Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum

Years ago, in the late 1980s, I spent six months working as a cub Photographic Librarian in the Press Association Photographic Library in Fleet Street, by then a gloomy canyon of deserted newspaper offices. The company was still run in a very old-fashioned way, and most of the staff had worked there all their lives, syndicating news and pictures to newspapers and television internationally. The Photographic Library was in a poky office at the back, and our job was sorting all the new images, received from Press Association photographers all over the world, cataloguing them and making sure they were ready for dispatch almost immediately. The mornings were incredibly stressful, because you had to be some sort of octopus, sorting the negatives, ordering prints (from an army of photographic developers who dwelt, axolotl-like, in the windowless basement), and dispatching orders. Everyone wanted everything immediately. Nowadays, of course, it would all be done electronically, but all that cataloguing and filing away, answering enquiries, and sorting out orders, was, I suppose, a sort of curatorship. Oddly enough, on the quieter afternoons, Clive, the Manager, used to delight in answering the phone by saying, ‘Hello! The Museum’, and then explode with helpless mirth at the confusion of the caller. I used to wonder why he thought that a ‘Museum’ was such an absurd place to work.

I eventually escaped from the Press Association, and went to work at the Royal Institute of British Architects Drawings Collection, at first as a Research assistant and then as Assistant Curator. This was a much more congenial job, I had studied architectural history at the Courtauld Institute, and the RIBA has probably the finest collection of architectural drawings anywhere. The Drawings Collection was then housed in an eighteenth-century townhouse in Portman Square, with an elegant staircase that coiled its way to the top floor. There were boxes of drawings, busts of architects and architectural models everywhere. My role at the Drawings Collection was to sort and assess drawings, research and catalogue them and assist readers, who came in, strictly by appointment. Sometimes, I still had to order photographs, but this time it was a relatively leisurely affair, involving long conversations with the charming Mr Butler about whether they wanted a glossy or matt finish. Cataloguing architectural drawings is a very specialized form of cataloguing, but it was fascinating learning how to do it – on incredibly basic computers – and even to this day I can still whip through drawings of this kind, sorting them into the different schemes, arranging them into plans, elevations, sections, details and perspectives, recording inscriptions, scales and watermarks, and so on. The Drawings Collection had a small, but perfectly formed gallery for temporary exhibitions, the Heinz Gallery, and this gave me the opportunity to curate small exhibitions of material from the collection. I also spent much time arranging for the RIBA’s fine collection of architect’s portraits and architectural models to be conserved and redisplayed in the beautiful rooms of 21 Portman Square. It was also a very sociable job, and all the great architectural historians who came to consult drawings were invited to coffee or tea - the famous oval table in the kitchen round which we all sat became the best place to hear architectural gossip in London. This way, I became firm friends with the former Director of the Collection, John Harris, the great country house ‘snooper’, and his wife, Eileen. They encouraged me to research, write and lecture about the discoveries we made. By 1995, after six years at the RIBA, I had a through grounding in British architecture, which was an ideal preparation for my next move; I went to work for the National Trust.

Looking after a collection of architectural drawings is a very particular sort of curation, but at the National Trust, I found myself curating entire buildings, gardens and the contents of houses, large and small. It was a revelation, having spent years looking mainly at drawings of buildings, having responsibility for the structures themselves. The death of my boss, the inspiring Gervase Jackson-Stops, six months after my arrival, propelled me into his old role of Architectural Historian to the National Trust, and I found myself advising on hundreds of historic buildings all over England, Wales and Northern Ireland, ranging from huge country houses, to barns, windmills and obelisks. Moreover, advice was usually needed when buildings were being restored, repaired, or altered. At Stowe in Buckinghamshire, the great landscape garden of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, over thirty garden buildings had to be researched and restored – including the Temple of Concord and Victory, where I worked with the project team and the architect Peter Inskip, reinstating sixteen giant Corinthian columns around its peristyle - which is the nearest I shall ever get to building a Greek temple like the Parthenon. Then there was the refurbishment of the State Apartment at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, where the original intense blue silk damask had to be researched, rewoven and rehung on the walls as a magnificent foil to the pictures and giltwood furniture. At other properties, such as Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, the philosophy was ‘preserve as found’ – although this is often more difficult than it looks. The most celebrated ‘set piece’ at Calke was Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe’s bedroom, abandoned when he got married in 1876. The dilapidated half-tester was picturesquely strewn with all manner of junk, including several stuffed stag’s heads. Every year, a band of conservators used to have to dismantle the ensemble, carefully clean and check all the objects, and put it all back together, so it looked exactly the same as before! Perhaps most exciting were the acquisitions, such as the Workhouse at Southwell, Nottinghamshire, where a run-down, derelict, local authority-owned hostel for homeless families was revealed to be a unique survival of an early nineteenth century workhouse. This is now a popular visitor attraction, especially with schools, teaching children about social history and the origins of the Welfare State. Another highlight was the campaign to save Tyntesfield in Somerset, a monster High Victorian country house , built for the pious Gibbs family, who had made all their money out of importing guano from South America. It was about to be sold and its contents scattered following the death of the 2nd Lord Wraxall in 2001. The National Trust already had over 200 country houses, of all dates, shapes and sizes, but none had quite the same combination of High Victorian Grand Guignol architecture, piety (the family’s private chapel was like the Sainte Chapelle) and time-capsule atmosphere. The rescue of Tyntesfield involved a race against time, delicate negotiations, and a massive fundraising campaign that raised £8.2 million in just 100 days. As one of the principal spokesmen for the Campaign for Tyntesfield, I was proud to play a tiny part in its rescue, and it gave me valuable experience of persuading and fundraising. In 2002, I got the job of Head Curator of the Trust. This brought with it managerial responsibility for a team of 50 curators, divided between the Trust’s HQ in London and the regional offices. Moving into management was like entering into some Faustian pact – I gave up most of the research, writing and cataloguing, in return for more influence and decision-making. I had little preparation for this transformation, but eventually I got used to it – and even began to enjoy the new challenge. In a way, I’d become a curator of people, as well as of buildings and collections. A particular benefit of working in the National Trust is that you have to work alongside other specialisms – often with very different priorities - such as visitor services, farming, nature conservation and commercial enterprises. This broadens your outlook, and makes you see things in new ways. It was a privilege getting to know the men and women who dedicate their lives caring for the myriad properties of the Trust. A colleague once quipped, ‘you shouldn’t list buildings, but the people who look after them’. 

In 2005, I moved again, to be Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. It was a bit odd at first, moving from looking after multiple historic properties, to just one London terraced house, albeit a very strange one, and of the highest historical and artistic significance. Sir John Soane’s buildings, with their ingenious use of space and light, still have an extraordinary relevance today, while his collections, which range from an Egyptian royal sarcophagus to Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, are displayed in a delightfully idiosyncratic manner. The challenge was how to maintain this fragile place – which now welcomes over 120,000 visitors every year – while preserving its special character.  I felt the key was to look at Soane’s Museum, and the two houses that flanked it, as a whole, carefully preserving and reinstating Soane’s own house as far as possible, while sensitively converting the flanking buildings to accommodate all the facilities needed by a museum today. This led me to devise, with my colleagues, a Masterplan for the museum – which we christened the Opening up the Soane project. Having raised, with difficulty, during the height of the economic recession, the £7 million needed to carry out our plans, we restored the two flanking houses, which housed a gallery for temporary exhibitions, a shop, research library, education rooms, a discreet lift, conservation studios and staff offices. We then embarked upon the almost forensic process of reinstating Soane’s private apartments in the Museum itself, as well as a host of other historic features. But, just as we started the restoration of Soane’s Model Room – the bit of the project I was particularly looking forward to – a new challenge presented itself, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.  

My new job, which I started in April 2013, is running the Fitzwilliam Museum, the principal art and archaeology museum of the University of Cambridge. With almost three times the number of staff of the Soane, and a huge collection numbering some 500,000 items, this extraordinary mini-Louvre is, oddly enough, my first experience of working in a ‘proper’ museum. The Fitzwilliam Museum has five departments – Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Antiquities, Coins and Medals, Manuscripts and Printed Books, and Applied Arts – and is especially renowned for its Old Master pictures, its collections of Egyptian artefacts, illuminated manuscripts, and ceramics, as well as for its coins and medals. The remarkable thing about the collections is that they were acquired by largely gift or bequest, and some of the distinctive displays combine pictures with sculpture, fine furniture and rugs, creating a civilized setting for the contemplation of beautiful things. Founded in 1816, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s buildings range from the magnificent Neoclassical Founder’s Building, through a series of twentieth-century extensions – its last addition being completed in 2004. By and large these serve the Museum well, although there is a backlog of repairs and there is not enough space to do justice to the collections. Circulation is also poor, and facilities like the lavatories, the café and the shop cannot now cope with the 400,000 visitors who pour into the Museum every year. We are currently in the very early stages of looking at the Museum site and buildings, to see how we can improve displays and circulation, visitor facilities and staff accommodation. Although the Fitzwilliam Museum has an impressive tradition of education and outreach, it is ironic that the area where we could do more is working more closely with the various departments of the University of Cambridge. One way we can do this is via the Arts Council-sponsored, Cambridge Museums Partnership, by which all eight museums of the University of Cambridge are sharing resources and ideas. This is a real opportunity, the combined artistic and scientific riches of Cambridge’s eight University museums are an extraordinary and exciting resource. But once again, it is all about people - colleagues, academics, students, the general public, supporters and volunteers – who can forge those links and make it all happen.