A Tale of Two Museums, Two Bookshops and Two Cathedrals

Taking a break from H.G. (he’s so demanding), I took in two museums and two bookshops and a cathedral, and got a lesson in contrasts.


First, I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is an art museum. It has a huge collection — I really had no idea. Cambridge seems pretty small.

Now, art museums are tricky for historians. Art, to us, is nothing without its historical context, its timeframe. I do art museums chronologically, starting with the oldest era I like (that’s medieval, not classical, because I prefer paintings to sculpture). At the Fitzwilliam, they make it tricky to do things in order (here’s the floor plan).

Spinello Aretino, The Angel of the Annunciation and The Virgin Annunciate, late 14th/early 15th c.

You’d have to start at Room 6 (Italian 14th-16th centuries) and then do 3, 7 and 8 at the same time (British, Italian, and Spanish 16th-18th centuries), for example. I tried this. But I kept coming back to Room 6 anyway because it has such cool things. Several Annunciations (I love Annunciations) and a picture that kept calling me over to it, and I couldn’t figure out why until I realized it was a Simone Martini. I love his Annunciation and had seen it in Italy in person.

This one was different, with the Archangel Michael staring intently out of it.

Detail, Simone Martini, St Geminianus, St Michael and St Augustine, each with an Angel above (c. 1319)

I also recently took a class in the pre-Raphaelites, and they were scattered around in the 19th century room. I think I would have put them together — you can’t even search the term on their website.

But the staff were wonderful. They tolerated the group of school children camping out in front of the Breughel painting (one showing someone vomiting at a carnival – I assume that sort of thing gets their attention), and me asking what a “pardella” is, since some of the signs in Room 6 said “Part of a pardella” (apparently it’s an altarpiece of some sort).

After being overwhelmed for awhile (I missed a Blake and a Rossetti, but did have lunch), I went to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science and tried really hard not to compare it to the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, which I visited a couple of years ago. The collection was amazing, with astrolabes and calculating machines and microscopes. Again I was struck with how many cool inventions are the result of trying to teach things to students: how the universe moves, how the body works, how small things are, how to show gravity. They’ve got orreries and wax models of the body and glass models of fungi.

The staff are moving objects into a teaching room gallery, but there were still some pull-out drawers for more exploration, even while they’re moving things around. So much of what I talk about in my History of Technology class was here.


In the Victorian Game Room, I was able to spin a zoetrope, but the stereoscope postcard I viewed was blurry (maybe it was me).


First, I must say it’s funny to be an American going book shopping. I was shopping for what in the U.S. we would call “classics”, meaning literature that abides over time – Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, anything written before you were born. In every bookshop I’ve been to in Britain, “classics” means “classics” – Homer, Aeschylus, Plato. All the books I want are just in Fiction or Literature, with George Orwell in the same section as George Eliot and Alan Bennett.

I think they’re mixed in because people here don’t distinguish old and new, or perhaps don’t consider 100 years ago as old. I see people reading these “classics” everywhere I go. The woman in front of me on the train was reading Oscar Wilde (as it happened, so was I). A lot of what we talk about with music — young people not distinguishing music by era but just enjoying it all — has always applied in this country when it comes to reading.

I had seen two bookshops in my first walk about Cambridge. I went to one, Sarah Key: The Haunted Bookshop not realizing it was haunted nor that it was “antiquarian” books only. They had some nice books, but I was shocked at the prices, especially since I had seen some of the editions for less elsewhere. But I confess I’m not a collector, so perhaps I didn’t know what I was looking at. Just around the corner was G. David Bookseller, who had new books (including the Collector’s Library books I am always looking for), second-hand books (found a book of poetry) and antiquarian books at fair prices. I bought there. I just noticed their website says they don’t send books overseas, but I did, right after a stop at the Oxfam bookshop (I always love finding things at Oxfam bookshops) for a few more little things (and I mean little – I am looking primarily for small hardbacks of “classic” literature that I want to read). Well, OK, the Wilkie Collins book was bigger, but still…


Heading out of town today before it got too hot (yes, really), I went to Ely to see the cathedral. I took the bus because I love buses – you get to see more, especially from the top level. Across East Anglia you can see for miles and miles.

I’m afraid that going to Ely, I carried the impression of other cathedrals in my mind, including York Minster and Chichester Cathedral. And always in my head is the cathedral to which no others compare: Durham. Durham Cathedral is free (though of course I always leave a donation) and Norman. Since it was only just touched by the beginnings of Gothic (it was mostly built in the 11th and 12th centuries), it is human-sized rather than overwhelming. The architecture is outstanding and although there were some false starts on things in the 12th century, it has no history of stupidity (unlike Chichester, where some Victorian idiot insisted that the screen could be removed, which brought down the whole tower). It is a place of community, the Evensong is 6 days a week and excellent, and it is continually being upgraded and repaired. Last year when I was there, a dun20cowhistorian told me everyone was happy because the “Dun Cow” carving had been under scaffolding and was now revealed. The story is that the body of St Cuthbert was being carried to his rest after Viking attacks on Lindisfarne, but no one knew where, and the dun cow stopped in Durham, so they buried him and built the cathedral there.

Plus it’s on a river with a fulling mill building near it, and to me it just doesn’t get any better than that (much of my graduate work focused on medieval fulling mills).


So on to Ely. Ely was stunning. Expansive. Gorgeous. Ornate.


It was also £8 to get in, plus more if you wanted to see the tower.

0705171112It had so much stuff in it that some of the cool carvings were behind chairs and tables and things.

And it was full of bishops. Every tomb with an effigy was a bishop. I’ve never seen so many bishops in one place.

0705171121 And there was a lot of connection to Cambridge — many of the dead had been professors there. It was all very grand and very impressive, but I confess it left me cold (but not literally – it had the most interesting Victorian-era ventilator stoves in it).

But allow me to recommend Topping & Company Booksellers, where I went afterwards. Oh, wait, that’s three bookshops…