Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge Museums

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Drum Dancer, 1987 (© Scott Polar Research Institute)
© Scott Polar Research Institute

Thomas Akilak

Wooden Snow Goggles  (© Paul Tucker)
© Paul Tucker
 (© Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge)
© Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

Woodwardian Collection: Bones & Teeth of Fishes

 (© Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge Museums)
© Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge Museums

Sufi-Islam Snakes and Ladders board

 (© Will Pryce)
© Will Pryce
Cambridge University might have been founded in 1209, but this 2014 show at London's Two Temple Place marks the first time its eight museums have combined to exhibit work in one space. Spanning archaeology, anthropology, zoology, science and more, 'Discoveries' seeks to reveal the cross-pollination that occurs between art and science using artefacts that go back millenia, each chosen to generate a sense of wonder.


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If you’re being generous, this exhibition might be called ‘eclectic’. Less charitable souls would probably write it up as ‘random’. It brings together a taste of the collections from the University of Cambridge’s eight museums, under the theme of ‘discoveries’. Unfortunately, the mixture of artefacts doesn’t really fit the description.

From a skeleton of a dodo (assembled from a selection of dead dodos, rather than a single bird), to a collection of snow goggles from throughout the ages, it lacks coherence. There are certainly some diverting items - a telescope which has been around the world multiple times, first on HMS Discovery and then on the Space Shuttle Discovery; an exquisite inlaid medieval Islamic game of snakes and ladders - but overall this exhibition disappoints.

The star of the show is really the building itself - Two Temple Place is an architectural gem. It’s a late Victorian mansion built by William Waldorf Astor, near Temple tube station, which has been tastefully restored following World War Two bomb damage. The highlights are the glass ceiling in the hall above a sweeping grand wooden staircase, and lots of intricate wooden carving in an upstairs gallery.

The venue sets great store by the fact that it is London’s first which specifically aims to showcase publicly-owned art from around the UK. There are certainly plenty of wonderful collections out there - but unfortunately this show doesn’t highlight Cambridge University’s to its best advantage.

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This is just a fantastic exhibition, even if just to visit the venue which is exquisite! Cannot recommend it enough!

What do a Hermes foot statue, a dodo skeleton and a collection of telescopes have in common? The three are discoveries past and present, and part of the intimist exhibition put together by the eight University of Cambridge museums. Displaying less than 60 historical artefacts and scientific specimens, the exhibition is not relevant to one specific discipline but speaks of a wider history of culture, science and discovery. The small amount of pieces presented invites the visitor to take his time. But their variety forces him to discover, and take an interest in some pieces he would not have come to see in its museum of origin. The exhibition becomes an active place of learning. Discovery takes an enlarged sense. Some of the pieces presented can be surprising, like the snakes and ladders board from India. Some are complex or perplexing, like a neutrino detector. And some are simply beautiful, like watercolours made by explorers of the Antarctic. If you have not had enough with the exhibition itself, it is also worth it to walk around the house hosting the exhibition. Two Temple Place is full of treasures, among which a collection of wooden statues representing different characters from Alexandre Dumas’s book The Three Musketeers, or an impressive door displaying golden statues of women from the King Arthur’s legend.