Waterford’s Museum of Treasures

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From the IAR archive
Peter Pearson visits Waterford’s Medieval Museum which completes the trilogy of cultural venues celebrating the historic city’s material culture.

Waterford’s long and dignified history continues to be celebrated by the recent opening of a new museum in the city – conceived and built within the last two years, despite the economic recession (Figs 1-3). The decision to expand and develop the city’s rich cultural past, at this time, is a vote of confidence in the future.

The new building in the heart of this port city incorporates a previously buried and inaccessible, vaulted medieval structure (Fig 5) and an ancient wine cellar. These early structures have been carefully conserved and lit, and are a real pleasure to visit. The museum is located at the east end of Waterford’s beautiful Christ Church Cathedral. Standing close by is the Bishop’s Palace, a large cut-stone mansion built in 1743 to the designs of Richard Castle, and now fully restored from its previous office use and opened to the public last year. The Bishop’s Palace houses an outstanding collection of fine art, including paintings, furniture, artefacts and important memorabilia relating to the city’s history, from the 18th century onwards.

Within easy reach is the iconic Reginald’s Tower, part of the city’s medieval defences which is run by the OPW and houses the city’s Viking collection. It housed the first, small collection of archaeological finds which has grown into today’s Waterford Museum of Treasures.

Also nearby is the impressive ruin of the Friary, whose walls and tower are remarkably intact and only wanting a roof to remove the damp mould from the stonework and bring it back to life. The Waterford Municipal Art Collection is located in an adjacent Victorian church in Greyfriars, and was converted for museum use just a couple of years ago. This impressive art collection is admirably displayed in other public venues, as for example on the stairs and lobby of the Theatre Royal where it helps to create a sense of intimacy.
Within this old quarter of Waterford we also find two craft design studios, Waterford City Archives, and Waterford Crystal’s new visitor centre.The new Waterford Crystal centre and showrooms and the city’s Public Art Collection are important city centre attractions, along with The Theatre Royal, the City Hall building and all the fine Georgian houses which give Waterford its essential character, especially on the quays.

All this has not happened by chance, but is part of a concentrated plan (the Viking Triangle) which aims to consolidate the culture and heritage of Waterford in the historic city centre, as a resource for visitors, school groups, and local residents alike. The whole venture, under the aegis of ‘Waterford Museum of Treasures’ is an imaginative investment in the future, while simultaneously safeguarding the treasures of the city and bringing life to its important historic buildings. Waterford City Council deserve great credit for supporting all these ventures – a spirit which could be emulated by other local authorities who are anxious to attract visitors to their towns and cities. It has been shown many times that high quality art museums and cultural attractions bring visitors who spend money in the local economy.

A notable point about these two museums is their authenticity and the quality of the collections on display. There are no gimmicky interpretive videos to cover up for the lack of authentic material –Waterford has the artefacts and they are beautifully displayed. There are two short film presentations in the Medieval Museum illuminating the religious and economic life of the medieval city, but these exist as simply stated backup to the exhibits.
In the Bishop’s Palace a team of actors are on hand to bring to life the more recent history of Waterford and the palace. Original 18th-century chimneypieces were sourced for the hall and principal rooms, and displays of portraits, silver, glass, and furniture perfectly recreate the Georgian ambience, while telling Waterford’s story. On the top floor, the political history is explored: The Civil War, John Redmond’s popularity in the Ballybricken district of the city, life during the Emergency, photographs from the wonderful Poole collection and much more besides.

The Waterford Museum of Treasures concept is very much the ‘brainchild’ of Eamonn McEneaney who also managed the former Waterford Treasures exhibit, which was housed in an old grain store on the quays and is now home to WIT’S School of Architecture.

The new Medieval Museum, designed by Rupert Maddock and his team in Waterford City Council, covers what is believed to be the 13th-century Choristers Hall (an underground vaulted chamber). What was previously a relatively unknown archaeological site is now protected from the elements and is accessible to the public. The museum structure itself is neatly tucked into a narrow wedge shaped site which was previously occupied by disused out buildings. The Chorister’s Hall or under croft is a wonderfully atmospheric space where the original lime mortar bears the imprint of the medieval shuttering boards (Fig5). This in turn connects with a wine vault which was found under the neighbouring 18th- century deanery. Both underground structures are carefully lit and are the starting point of the tour of the museum.
Upstairs at street level a glazed entrance area, which can be fully opened up, gives access to reception, shop, and a spacious balcony area, while the windowless upper floors provide ample space for the displays of medieval objects and their interpretation.

The Medieval Museum is sandwiched between two Council owned properties –The Theatre Royal and an 18th- century Deanery house, currently used for motor taxation. The new building allows light and access to both, especially to the theatre where its new backstage facilities are neatly incorporated into part of the new museum building.

Much of the stonework in the Chorister’s hall is pale, honey coloured Bath stone and this provided the inspiration for the use of the same stone, from modern quarries, on the façade of the museum. The design is unusual with slightly overhanging curved waves of smooth stonework which perhaps hint at the once common projecting upper floors of Waterford’s timber-framed medieval houses (Fig 3). It is an extraordinary fact that not one timber-framed house of medieval origin has survived intact in Ireland, though we know from old drawings that they were commonplace in places like Waterford, Dublin and Drogheda.
The displays of what is Ireland’s first Medieval Museum are located on two floors – on the 1st floor we explore the ecclesiastical history of the city where wooden sculptures of saints and a Madonna Lactans make an impressive display. The unique collection of late medieval, embroidered vestments used in Christ Church Cathedral which survived the ravages of the Reformation and Cromwell, are the star attraction. These vibrantly coloured, opulent textiles suggest a remarkably sophisticated and powerful Church. The Flemish-made copes and hoods, embroidered with gold threads on Florentine cloth are vestments from 15th-century Europe.
The top floor is devoted to the evolution of the city – its administration and its trade. The images from Waterford’s Charter Roll of 1372 are extraordinary portraits of rulers and dignitaries of the time. Henry the VIII’s red velvet hat, presented to the city, is also on display.

Waterford’s long history of medieval trade with England and Europe is well documented and the prosperity of the city is reflected in a display of wine jugs, pottery and decorated medieval floor tiles – all uncovered in archaeological digs in the city. All of the objects, skilfully lit in a darkened space are presented as a way of drawing us into the past.

Waterford is well known for its medieval town walls, much of which still stand and have been repaired over the last twenty years, along with five remaining watchtowers. A series of models, made locally by Colin Patten, are on display in the museum, and give an excellent idea of the extent of the walled city and show how it has evolved over time. We can see for example, how, along the river Suir, the old town walls were thown down in the early 1700s, to be replaced with today’s quays, Dutch Billy houses, and a magnificent but long vanished Custom House. All of this detail is captured in Van der Hagen’s contemporary painting which hangs in the Bishop’s Palace.

It would be hard to encapsulate the whole long history of such a dignified city and people, with its many attributes and its impressive maritime and trading past in three such museums but Waterford has accomplished this and done so with style.

Peter Pearson is an architectural historian.

From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 30, No 1, 2013