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Lewis’s Museum

Photograph of Lewis’s room with Professor Nigel Simmonds, the current occupant – Taken by K.A. Beats

Those fortunate enough to have visited the Lewis Museum during the lifetime of the Rev. Samuel Savage Lewis had a unique experience. Upon entering Lewis’s private rooms in the Old Court at Corpus Chrisi College, the visitor would have been welcomed by a Fellow surrounded by manuscripts and antiquities. A private collection within the College. The Lewis Collection moved from Corpus Christi College to the public galleries of the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1991.

Photograph of the staircase to the crypt – Taken by K.A. Beats

The current display at the Fitzwilliam is a far cry from the shelves and cases in the Old Court, where Lewis’s antiquities transformed his rooms into a live-in museum. No surface was left unused, describes his Lewis’s wife, Agnes Smith Lewis;

"In the centre of a large table was the model of a Lacustrine dwelling, and surrounding this on every side were piles of manuscript papers, the order of which was known only to the owner. Around the walls were ranged cases of books, and wherever there was a flat available surface it was crowded with Greek and Roman vases."

Lewis was Fellow of Corpus Christi College from 1869 where he occupied the suite of rooms in the Old Court, which include to this day some very unusual features. Upon mounting the wooden stairs and entering into a large sitting room, a 40 ft Early Tudor gallery leads off to the left. This gallery used to give access to two small chapels which were later incorporated into the Fellow’s rooms. Visitors walk down a spiral staircase and peer through small windows which look directly out into the interior of St. Bene’t’s Church. They passed through a doorway which used to provide an entrance into the church. These two rooms leading into one another provided an excellent space for Lewis to keep his antiquities.

Photograph of the window into St. Bene’t’s Church – Taken by K.A. Beats

“I think you would like to look into the crypt”, was an invitation given to the more curious visitor of Lewis’s rooms. His self-proclaimed crypt, often referred to as his museum, housed Lewis’s Greek vases, terracottas, bronze and marble statutes and his magnificent collection of coins. He used these artefacts for teaching and to entertain guests. Lewis offered a guided tour, pointing out pieces of particular interest. Lewis would then be ready with a clothes brush, to dust down the clothes of his visitors who might have rubbed themselves against the old walls. Some visitors would be offered a replica of an ancient gem as a memento of their time in the crypt. When asked if he had any concerns about the security of his collection, Lewis reassured his visitor that, "A revolver lies in that case… But I no more expect to see a burglar than to see the ghost of a monk turning over the leaves of the missal which he had transcribed in the flesh".

Lewis travelled Europe and the East in search of ancient sites and artefacts to add to his collection. In 1879 he made his first trip to Greece and was overawed by the beauty of the landscapes of Athens, Attica, Aegina and Corinth, if a little disenchanted by the modern inhabitants. His letters to friends describe arduous journeys on horseback and rather challenging accommodation. In 1882 Lewis ventured to the East, picking up coins along the way, and piecing together local finds;

"Yesterday we took the train up to Sultan Hissar, and there rode up-hill to the ruins of Nysa, where we found the remains of a magnificent theatre and some temples, and just two words of an inscription ATATHOHI TYTXHI (good fortune). This was encouraging, and we soon after heard of another in the Konak (mairie) below. It has been seized, ostensibly on account of the inscription, from the Greek priest who had discovered it, and the greedy Mudir (mayor), in hope of finding coin, hastened to break it into five pieces. With the help of our robber-guide we put them together, and spelled out nearly all of the twenty-one lines, all except five or six words which are, I fear, essential to the sense. But I am sending a copy of the Academy, as it has not been seen by Englishmen before" {letter recorded by Agnes Smith Lewis, pg. 87}

Upon his sudden death in March 1891 Lewis left his collection of antiquities to Corpus Christi College. This was certainly a generous bequest, but without Lewis and his revolver, caring for a large collection of antiquities was a considerable responsibility. Lewis’s rooms had to be reallocated, and in August of that year the College Chapter Book records the purchase of new display cases for the ‘Lewis Museum’, as well as refurbishment of the windows and doors. The location (although unconfirmed) seems likely to have been a small space under the Library, perhaps the Librarian’s office. The role of Curator of the Lewis Collection was given to the Librarian and the Lewis Collection Committee was created. Public access to the new Lewis Museum was arranged for Mondays during term time between 2pm and 3pm. Visitor books from 1902-1903 and 1928-29 illustrate the wide variety of visitors from across the UK and abroad. In the year 1928, the Lewis Museum had 2,015 visitors. From curators at the British Museum and academics from Harvard University, to tourists from Athens and history groups from Stoke-on-Trent, the Lewis Museum was another museum in Cambridge worth a visit. Poignantly in 1903, his wife Agnes Smith Lewis and her sister brought their guests to visit the Lewis Museum.

The Lewis Collection on display in the Parker Library - by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College

The duration of time that the Lewis Museum remained open to public access is currently unknown. What is certain however, is that part of the collection made its way into the Parker Library in 1929. Lewis’s antiquities made the perfect backdrop to the beautiful books and manuscripts, and it seemed appropriate given Lewis’s office as Librarian from 1870.

It was not until the 1950s that the Lewis Collection returned to the agenda at Corpus. The Librarian suggested a move to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1957, which was rejected by the College who proposed a relocation within the College for the Lewis Collection. This did not come to fruition and it was not until 1991 that the Lewis Collection made its way to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Concerns for conservation had to supersede the best intentions of keeping the integrity of the collection within Corpus Christi College. The vases, coins and statues may no longer be amongst their unique surroundings in the private rooms of a Fellow, but they continue to speak of the collecting habits of a rather eccentric Victorian gentleman.