The Fitzwilliam Museum was described by the Standing Commission on Museums & Galleries in 1968 as "one of the greatest art collections of the nation and a monument of the first importance". It owes its foundation to Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion who, in 1816, bequeathed to the University of Cambridge his works of art and library, together with funds to house them, to further "the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation".
Fitzwilliam's bequest included 144 pictures, among them Dutch paintings he inherited through his maternal grandfather and the masterpieces by Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio he acquired at the Orléans sales in London. During a lifetime of collecting, he filled more than 500 folio albums with engravings, to form what has been described as "a vast assembly of prints by the most celebrated engravers, with a series of Rembrandt's etchings unsurpassed in England at that time". His library included 130 medieval manuscripts and a collection of autograph music by Handel, Purcell and other composers which has guaranteed the Museum a place of prominence among the music libraries of the world.
In 1848 the Founder's Building, designed by George Basevi (1794-1845) and completed after his accidental death by C R Cockerell (1788-1863), opened to the public. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the collections have grown by gift, bequest and purchase; their history is a continuous one which traces the history of collecting in this country over the last two hundred years. If the Museum owed its foundation to a Grand Tourist, it went on to benefit from the shift of taste towards the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance for which the Gothic Revival of the nineteenth century was responsible. By the same token, many of the Museum's early twentieth century benefactors may be counted among the heirs to the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements. In recent years, the Museum's traditional base of support from alumni and private collectors has been augmented by generous provision from the National Art Collections Fund and other charitable organisations and public bodies, including H M Treasury (under the provision for the allocation to Museums of works of art accepted in lieu of capital taxes). Today, the Museum pursues a vigorous acquisitions policy as one aspect of its abiding commitment to hold the nation's "treasures in trust". The Standing Commission's view is both echoed and expanded by the University itself:
"The Fitzwilliam Museum is one of the greatest glories of the University of Cambridge. It is a museum of international stature, with unique collections most splendidly housed... Like the University itself, the Fitzwilliam Museum is part of the national heritage, but, much more, it is part of a living and continuing culture which it is our statutory duty to transmit".
Few museums in the world contain on a single site collections of such variety and depth. Writing in his Foreword to the catalogue of the exhibition for Treasures from the Fitzwilliam which toured the United States in 1989-90, the then Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, wrote that "like the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam addresses the history of culture in terms of the visual forms it has assumed, but it does so from the highly selective point of view of the collector connoisseur. Works of art have been taken into the collection not only for the historical information they reveal, but for their beauty, excellent quality, and rarity... It is a widely held opinion that the Fitzwilliam is the finest small museum in Europe".