Music in the museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Project overview

The Fitzwilliam Museum houses Cambridge University’s collection of art and antiquities. We have a particular commitment to quality engagement with children and young people as part of our work as an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. The Early Years programme at the Museum aims to give very young children authentic encounters with incredible artworks. This project aimed to bring new ways of connecting with the collection objects through pieces from the baroque repertoire, specially chosen and performed by professional musicians from the Academy of Ancient Music, and through a variety of creative music and art making activities for families to enjoy together.

Comparing instruments. Image courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum.

The three sessions

Educators from the Fitzwilliam Museum and musicians from the Academy of Ancient Music devised three different sessions to introduce very young children and their families to the world of art and music through carefully selected music and a range of creative activities based on objects from the museum collection.

All sessions were open to members of the public: Baby Musical Magic was aimed at 0-2 year olds and It’s Musical Magic was for 2-5 year olds. These were adaptations to our regular bi-monthly Early Years events. In addition, Listening to Pictures was programmed as part of Cambridge University’s Science Festival and welcomed families with children aged between 0 and 5 years. Parents, grandparents and other family adults attended these sessions, which were all fully booked.

Joanna Lawrence, violinist with the Academy of Ancient Music, began by observing an Early Years session at the museum to help her understand the format and the potential of working with such young children in the gallery and art studio spaces. Together, she and Nicola Wallis developed ideas that could be explored through music and art to help build understanding about the collections.

Baby musical magic

This session was based around the idea of ‘call and response’. The instruments and the sounds they make (Jo’s violin and Dawn Baker’s double bass) were introduced to the children who responded through movement and gesture. We built on the babies’ natural interest in ‘Peek-a-boo’ games by hiding our faces under fabric and peeking out on a musical cue, and then hiding and revealing objects in our ceramics gallery in the same way. Jo and Ruth used Biber’s Sonata Representativa, which takes its inspiration from the real sounds of animals, to bring another dimension to the babies’ encounters with the song birds, chickens and cockerels on display!

In the art studio, the babies had a chance to get up close to the instruments, and to create music alongside Jo and Dawn. Some of the families also made beautiful shakers: filling them with different kinds of objects and creative decorations using paint pens, stickers and washi tape made them exciting for the eyes and the ears.

It’s musical magic

For the older children (2-5 year olds), we created a song that wove together some favourite objects from the ceramics gallery and music from a similar era, including Castello’s Sonata Concertante and the Sailors’ Dance from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Watching the children’s expressions as the music drifted around the objects on display was simply beautiful. The families were also amazed to learn that the instruments being played were older than the museum itself! It felt like an amazing privilege to hear the same instrument that people had been listening to over two hundred years ago.

Everyone had the chance to make an instrument as part of the session. Using wooden pieces hand-prepared by studio artists at the museum, each child built a stringed instrument to take home. We compared the construction and sound of these with Jo and Dawn’s instruments and all played together in a very unique orchestra!

Dancing in the museum. Image courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum.

Listening to pictures

For these events, we opened up to the full 0-5 age range. This meant that we needed flexible and open-ended activities that would be accessible and enjoyable for everyone from pre-mobile babies to school-rising children, as well as their adults! In addition, these events were part of the Cambridge University Science Festival and as such needed to explore the theme of ‘Sense’.

Fortunately, these requirements worked well together, and we were able to devise a session based around using our senses in new ways – how might we hear a picture? How might we sing an artwork? Can we create visual music? We worked with three musicians this time which offered a new palette of possibilities: Joanna Lawrence, Iwona Muszynska (violins) and Imogen Seth-Smith (viola da gamba).

Again, the stimulus for all these questions were exciting artworks from the collection (van Brugghen’s Young Musician Tuning a Lute and Gyselaer’s Interior of a hall with musicians at a table were just two examples) and relevant music from the baroque repertoire (such as the Prelude from Corelli’s Trio Sonata in B Flat Major and Schop’s Lacrimae Pavan).

Experiencing the art and music together inspired the babies, children and families, through gently structured activities to create their own imaginative responses through dance, music and song. The children were encouraged to compare what they saw with what they heard – the bold lines that we notice straightaway, the intricate details rewarded by careful attention, the changes in colour and texture in both painting and music. Many of the children created drawings in response to their experiences, and the musicians interpreted these as visual scores to the obvious delight of our young artist-composers!

Communicating without words. Image courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum.


The feedback from participants was extremely positive. Families described high levels of interest and enjoyment:

The music was beautiful. My daughter really enjoyed playing colours and looking at the details in the pictures. She was very engaged.

Two year old D got a chance to listen to some amazing musicians so close up and with such a personal connection.

A wonderful way for children to explore the museum on their own terms.

The music being played in the museum was very special. T’s favourite part was making the instrument, he was really engaged with it.

The music is wonderful. I like the combination of music and pictures.

Bringing music and visual art together also challenged both the musicians and the museum education team to think about new ways of presenting their work and communicating with audiences.

Families also emphasised that these were events that they could enjoy together: parents and grandparents felt comfortable to participate in the sessions alongside their children without taking over or directing them. Musical ways of interacting with the museum objects seemed to be accessible to people of any age:

Fun at the museum for all ages. Not stuffy.

We both enjoyed the singing.

Perfectly-pitched family event.

Drawing pictures for the musicians to play. Image courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum.

The partnership between the Academy of Ancient Music extends beyond work with Early Years audiences: musicians have also collaborated with the education team to deliver Arts Award workshops for Secondary School Students and Weekend Drop-In Events for families, so we can see that there is a lot of potential for using music to connect with a wide variety of audiences.

Feeling the music. Image courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum.

Previously within the Early Years programme, we have used recorded music or sound effects to create atmosphere during story telling, or have used nursery rhymes in languages relevant to our gallery objects to provide a sensory context to our international collection for babies. Planning, delivering and evaluating the events described above has brought new insights into how we might develop musical play in our gallery settings using live music and real musical instruments, and how we can help children to develop and communicate their ideas through creating musical as well as visual art.

We have seen that children can and do engage with serious music, in the same way that we know they engage with the artworks in our collection. These kinds of projects are ways in which we can support their holistic creative and aesthetic development, but also further evidence of the capabilities of young children to play a full role in the cultural life of our communities. 

Nicola Wallis, Museum Educator
Fitzwilliam Museum