Visiting the Fitz (as locals know it) is easy by train and local bus or park and ride. The bus from Trumpington P+R has a stop within 100 metres of the museum; others terminate in the city centre but the walk – weather permitting – goes past several colleges.
The main entrance is currently shrouded in tarpaulin. This isn't, along with the JCB on the grass nearby, an art installation though it could be, a testament to a forward looking policy at the Fitwilliam. There are usually contemporary sculptures rather than the JCB, and regular temporary exhibitions allow modern works to hold conversations, as artists like to say, with the permanent collection.
Mundane necessity requires the tarpaulin, however, as the Corinthian portico is in need of restoration. In current weather conditions it at least offers a respite to visitors, who themselves may need restoration at the entrance.
The choice on entrance is up, to paintings and sculpture from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, or down to antiquities, from Egypt to Rome. Upstairs, through the Octagon showing gold coins of the Iceni recently excavated at Wickham Market, there are the Adeane Galleries of contemporary art, including at present an exhibition of Antony Craxton's drawings and paintings, and the Shiba Room, showing British flower paintings but usually Japanese prints. Downstairs there are ceramics, from Asia, the Islamic world and Europe, medieval armour and manuscripts.
Every time I've been there over forty years there has been something new to wonder at as well as familiar treasures. These never tire but seem to gain with each visit. All there is to regret is the cynical theft some time ago of priceless Chinese jade.
Although reorganised to make the best of what remains the Chinese Room still seems forlorn. Nonetheless it is currently the starting point of an intervention by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal, that exemplifies the policy of encouraging "conversations".
Edmund de Waal's lifelong passion for porcelain took him to Jingdezhen, the centre of Chinese porcelain craft for more than a millennium. He commissioned a number of long white tiles on which he has arranged a selection of his favourite vessels from the permanent collection. These are of all ages, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, German, Italian and English, arranged in vitrines (glass cabinets) with drawers that can be opened on documents telling the stories of porcelain through that millennium. At beginning and end the older works are complemented by two of his own vitrines, and a third is to be found in an adjacent gallery.
To echo the mystery of porcelain, as told in some of the documents, his own works tease the viewer who can't usually see everything in the vitrines. The third is placed inside one of the museum's antique cabinets and could easily be missed altogether.
The stories de Waal offers include presentations to emperors, purchases by European grandees, and even a three-way correspondence between a museum director, a donor and the Wedgwood factory. Two Chinese vases actually imitate Wedgwood jasperware. Another point made is that when a blue glaze failed and the decoration became green the vessel could not be offered to the emperor but was sold – a new slant on commerce, as is the case of Chinese craftman making fake antiquities, which prove nothing is new.
Several broken items illustrate the great difficulty of porcelain, and de Waal's vitrines, (no capitals) 'yourself, you' and 'a thousand hours', do likewise. The playfully hidden item is called 'in plain sight'.
The whole intervention takes a deal of patience but rewards by bringing treasures old and more recent into a new context. We were assisted by a really helpful guide, without whom we may not have gained as much as we did.
This was a splendid example of the kind of "conversation" the Fitz manages really well: in recent years there have been exhibitions by Maggi Hambling, Lucien Freud and Quentin Blake, each of which provoked a fresh look at works in other galleries. The Craxton, too, suggests looking at Matisse, de Stael and Hitchens, for their use of brilliant colour.
Add to all this a first class cafe offering drinks, snacks or lunches plus a good shop and the verdict has to be, if there is a better museum outside London I don't know it. The query in my title is just for the sake of the museum's academic integrity. There is even the afterthought: how much high-level discussion was needed before agreeing the notice in the toilets should say "Now please wash your hands" instead of "Now wash your hands please"?