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News | Published: Thu 6 Mar 2014

ImageArts Council England grants £87,582 to create a digital archive of manuscripts

The Fitzwilliam Museum and the colleges of the University of Cambridge have one of the largest, finest and most historically important selection of illuminated manuscripts in existence. Fragile and sensitive to light, temperature and humidity, the manuscripts can only be displayed for short periods of time under special conditions to protect their delicate materials and pigments.

However, illuminated manuscripts are the most representative and best-preserved examples of medieval and Renaissance painting, doubling as portable galleries of artistic traditions through the centuries. The manuscripts collections are also one of the most popular at the Fitzwilliam, with exhibitions such as the Cambridge Illuminations in 2005 drawing record numbers of visitors.

The tools created for the Digital Layers project will be inspired in part by commonly used internet mapping and visualisation resources such as Google Earth and the WorldWide Telescope project ( They will explore the different layers of the manuscripts uploaded online, allowing the viewer to examine its creation, from original sketches hidden beneath the illuminations, to the type of pigments, inks, and paint binders used. These different layers will also reveal secrets about artists and patrons: where and when the manuscripts were made, how did highly-skilled professionals collaborate on their production, and how did owners use them over time and across countries.

All of this incredible detail and information has been made possible by two research projects being run by the Fitzwilliam; the Cambridge Illuminations and MINIARE.

The Cambridge Illuminations continues to research over 4000 illuminated Western manuscripts and pre-1500 printed books from the Fitzwilliam and the Cambridge Colleges, bringing them together in a multi-volume series of catalogues.

Launched in February 2012 the MINIARE project is playing a major part in the current revolution in scientific analysis of works of art - moving away from invasive techniques that take samples to using advanced imaging and spectroscopic techniques to analyse manuscripts in depth without even touching their surface.

The Digital Layers portal will feature in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s bicentenary exhibition in 2016 displaying the Museum’s finest illuminated manuscripts.

The tools created for Digital Layers will be made available for re-use in Cambridge and beyond and it is hoped that the project will help set new standards in how museums can bring cutting-edge research to a wider audience.

The investment came through the Arts Council‘s Designation development fund which supports projects that ensure the long-term sustainability of Designated museum collections, and which maximise their public value and the sharing of best practice across the sector. Successful organisations use this money to improve their collections for the benefit of their audiences, improving enjoyment, understanding and engagement. In the University of Cambridge Museums both the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences were successful in securing grants to open their collections to wider audiences.