My query in the title is only for the benefit of the Fitwilliam’s academic integrity. I haven’t been to all the other museums in the UK but the Ashmolean, the Gulbenkian in Durham, the Burrell Collection and the museums and galleries of Edinburgh are those I’d count as runners-up.
One warning: it isn’t easy to visit the Fitz (as locals know it) by car: city centre parking is expensive and there’s a long walk from the cheaper options. Local buses are good, including a shuttle from the railway station; so is park and ride, with a service from Trumpington stopping within a hundred metres of the main entrance. Others go to the centre but the walk in decent weather goes delightfully past several colleges.
At present the main entrance is shrouded in tarpaulin, with a JCB on grass nearby. Aware of the adventurous policy at the Fitz, which allows what artists like to call "conversations" between contemporary works on temporary display and the permanent exhibits, you might imagine this as a happening or intervention. The mundane fact is the Corinthian portico needs restoration; at least in current weather the tarpaulin allows you to shelter and draw breath before going in.
Once inside you have a grand staircase that resembles those of the South Kensington museums, with a choice of up, towards art works from the Renaissance to the present, or down to antiquities from Egypt to Rome. There are diversions either way, with the Octagon upstairs now showing the Wickham Market hoard of Icenian gold coins, and downstairs having Edmund de Waal’s intervention "On White: Porcelain stories from the Fitzwilliam Museum."
This is an outcome of de Waal’s lifelong passion for porcelain, the most difficult of ceramic media. He visited the city of Jingdezhen, where porcelain craftsmen have worked for more than a thousand years. As well as learning about them he commissioned some long tiles on which he has now displayed some of his favourite items from the Fitzwilliam collection.
Most have been selected from the Chinese porcelain gallery, with a few from Germany, Italy and England and one from Japan. All are displayed in vitrines, glass cabinets, with invitations on drawers beneath to open and read the stories of his title. At beginning and end are two vitrines with his own porcelain vessels, emphasising the mystery of the craft because it is impossible to see every one clearly. A third is mischievously "hidden" in one of the museum’s eighteenth century cabinets in another gallery.
The stories involve gifts to Chinese emperors, purchases by European grandees and eye-witness accounts from Marco Polo on. A three-way correspondence tells of a donation to the museum and its parallel at the Wedgwood factory: two square Qing vases imitate Wedgwood jasperware. There are "wasters", damaged pots that could not be used, and blue glazes that misfired green and could not be offered to the emperor but disparagingly sold. And to show there’s nothing new there are fake antiquities made in Jingdezhen.
As with all contemporary exhibitions, "On White" provokes a fresh look at the permanent collection. In this case we have to be grateful to Edmund de Waal not only for refreshing our view but for creating a fascinating event in its own right. It ends on 23 February so hurry!
Drawing and painting has a current exhibition too, with the work of Anthony Craxton from his days in the Greek Islands. Brilliant colours invite comparison with the Matisse, Signac and Hitchens in the Fitz.
It should be added too that Picasso, Braque and Henry Moore are in the collection, with Monet, Degas and Seurat among the French. Too many others to record: best to go to the excellent cafe, for drinks, snacks or delicious lunches, and to leave by way of the modern, wheel-chair friendly extension, after perhaps a mischievous thought about how much earnest discussion was required to decide "Now please wash your hands" instead of "Now wash your hands please" should be placed in the toilets.