In conversation: Stephen Deuchar and Tim Knox

Stephen Deuchar speaks to Tim Knox, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to find out how he got to run this great university museum and the challenges he’s met along the way.

Tim started his career at the National Trust where he featured in the BBC’s reality TV programme giving a ‘warts and all’ behind-the-scenes view of the Trust. After 10 years he left to lead the remarkable renovation of Sir John Soane's Museum before heading to the Fitzwilliam where he has been in post as director since April.

Stephen Deuchar: It must have been great to join the National Trust and work your way up through the ranks, do tell us a bit about your time there...

Tim Knox: The National Trust is an extraordinary institution, as well as having 200 odd historic properties ranging from a vast house like Powis Castle to a workhouse, it also looks after a truly remarkable collection of works of art and other things like stools, mousetraps, works by Velazquez and portraits by Titian – so yes, it was a brilliant opportunity.

SD: And your final job at the Trust was as Head Curator?

TK: Yes, I took over three years before I left. I had a lot to do with the Art Fund as it was a period of time when we were hugely acquisitive, repatriating houses with objects that once belonged to them and negotiating with the families who wished to sell to ensure objects remained in the houses – it was essential to ensure objects returned to their historic setting. We were also very keen that houses were not filled with miscellaneous chattels, sculpture and furniture and that we stayed true to the house.

SD: Describe the transition from working with that incredibly diverse array of properties across the UK and national focus to a very small, but very remarkable single museum in the heart of London, the Sir John Soane's Museum, when you were appointed director

TK: The opportunity to look after one of the most significant architectural ensembles and also iconic house museum was irresistible; some people thought it was a bit of demotion going from looking after lots of properties to just one, but I felt the Soane had a different focus, it’s a national museum believe it or not and it also has this extraordinary collection of architectural models, a library and it’s the best documented collection I’ve ever come across...

SD: The extent and speed of the refurbishment of the Soane was remarkable, how did you find the move from being a relatively big cog at the Trust to guiding just one museum?

TK: The key to raising money is having a good project and being absolutely passionate and committed to it, once we’d got the project right we were able to raise over £7 million for the refurbishment which was good value for money compared to other renovation projects you see now.

It was interesting working in a relatively small organisation where you were more or less master over your own destiny, there was something quite liberating about that. At the Soane, not only is it very small but Soane’s wishes are crystal clear – he sets out exactly what he wanted in his will of 1833 and actually that was a great liberation in a way.

SD: It must have been frustrating to leave before the renovation project was complete, but I imagine the Fitzwilliam Museum job was simply too good an opportunity to refuse?

TK: It was simply ghastly really, we were just about to start the room of architectural models, however the bust that says Fitzwilliam on the front doesn’t come across very often and I had to think there may not have been an opportunity like that if I’d stayed to finish the project. In retrospect I’m glad I did it as I’m hugely enjoying it and it’s a different set of opportunities and challenges, it’s quite good every so often to reinvent oneself.

SD: I always think of the Fitz as a complicated environment, any university with such a strong sense of its own significance in the world as Cambridge must present difficult challenges I suppose?

TK: Yes, I’m not a Cambridge man and I still can’t find my way around the labyrinth of buildings, all I would say is I am relieved because the buildings are extraordinary and I have my own Egyptian sarcophagus; it’s like a mini Louvre, as we have paintings as well as antiquities and wonderful Chinese things and even contemporary works – it’s a wonderful change of pace. I’m really startled by the collections and going round the stores I’m astonished by the things which aren’t on display and of course that is going to be one of the challenges in the next few years – how you get more gallery space.

SD: Now the fundraising for Poussin’s Extreme Unction which we worked together on last year to secure the work for the Fitzwilliam’s collection was a great success. What was it about Poussin and a picture of such sombre matter do you think captured the imagination of the public?

TK: A death bed scene isn’t usually a picture that would normally appeal, but it is probably the most important work of art acquired by the museum in the last 50 years; the achievement of the appeal is a considerable one, it was a wonderful thing to acquire and fits in with our collection. It’s a painting of great moving tragedy and also sensitivity and I particularly like the way Poussin has entirely set this poignant scene within a recognisably Roman interior, all the furniture carefully researched in order to provide a classically correct setting for this wonderful picture. We’ll be shortly moving it to the large Italian gallery and then it will go on tour which will share the benefit of this great work of art joining our collection.

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