• Monday , 23 September 2019

Putting a new heart into an ancient city

In terms of tourism, Waterford is firmly placed within the region known as Ireland’s Ancient East, where the strategy of the national tourism agency, Fáilte Ireland, is to focus on a number of segments of the tourism market with particular emphasis on what is known in the trade as the ‘culturally curious.’ 

In Waterford, we have embraced with open arms this strategy as it plays to our strength as a city and county with a rich cultural heritage. With the ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ brand, Fáilte Ireland has recognised and has helped to unleash the tourism potential of the built heritage of the east of Ireland.

The framework within which Waterford’s cultural heritage was transformed was a project known as the Viking Triangle. This work saw the transformation of the oldest part of the city – a compact, triangular area of land that historically lay between two rivers, first settled by the Vikings. Today, this pedestrianised, easy-to-traverse area boasts no fewer than eleven national monuments that stand almost cheek to cheek – no other urban site of comparable size in Ireland can boast such a wealth of diverse national monuments.

The Viking Triangle area, prior to redevelopment works

The Viking Triangle project was not simply about aligning the three different museum buildings in chronological order and building a new Medieval Museum. It was also about ensuring that the museum buildings reflected the material housed within. For example, the Viking material is housed in Reginald’s Tower, the only monument in the country named in honour of a Viking. Beneath the modern medieval museum building lie two medieval chambers. Likewise, the Georgian Bishop’s Palace, dating to 1743, tells the story of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Waterford.

The entire Viking Triangle Project was underpinned by the ‘museums without boundaries’ philosophy. The aim of this was to use good design and innovative public realm interventions to draw on or excite the cultural curiosity of both the visitor and the local community.

To achieve our goal, an in-house, multi-disciplinary team was assembled. The team consisted of the professional staff in the museum who worked with a team of architects from the council’s architecture department, conservation officers, officials from the planning department, the estate office, roads, housing, engineering etc. This team still meets every two weeks to continue the consultative process and to monitor the ongoing progress the project.   

The Viking Triangle area, prior to redevelopment works

The philosophy of ‘museums without boundaries’ refers to literally thinking outside the box or the physical museum structure. This would see the city council make an enormous decision in 2007 to relocate the existing city museum (then only seven years old and developed at a cost in excess of £2 million) and establish a museum district in the Viking Triangle. In this, the museums became the main drivers of the regeneration of the historic city centre that had for one reason or another been neglected.

There were five ingredients critical to the success of the project:

The first critical ingredient

A hugely supportive council and executive who sought solutions, not problems – and who trusted their staff to find innovative strategies to transform the historic city centre. Everyone involved viewed the project not as a one-off intervention, but as a game-changer for Waterford.  No aspect of this project was driven by hired-in expensive heritage consultants – the project was very much ‘of Waterford’, driven by people who worked in, and knew the city; its architecture, its history and its archaeology, as well as the opportunities and challenges that the city faced. This is what we felt heritage tourism should be about – local people telling local stories.

The second critical ingredient

Waterford’s strong, twenty-year long track record of both academic and popular publications on historic and archaeological matters marked the city out. This ensured that authenticity was a key component in the transformation of the Viking Triangle, as it was predicated by two decades of solid academic research into all aspects of the city’s history and archaeology.

The third critical ingredient

A twenty-year long conservation programme – generously grant-aided by the Heritage Council, Waterford Council and private donors – of an extensive collection of medieval manuscripts, paintings, furniture, cloth of gold vestments, and the Viking and Medieval objects recovered during two major archaeological excavations.

The fourth critical ingredient

An acquisitions programme spanning over two decades, together with our reputational credibility, has meant that we have been able to greatly expand our museum collections and facilities. We have the support of some 200 subscribed ‘Friends of the Museum’ whose generosity made the resources available to acquire museum objects at auction. As well as this, we have been gifted several objects of historic importance. In 2015 we received our first bequest, a pair of mid eighteenth-century candlesticks made in Clonmel, the gift of a local benefactor. Items of this quality are very rare, and are testament to the cultural value of the institution and the confidence placed in the museum by the local community.

In more recent times, the museum has received two museum-quality collections of clocks and watches: an Irish collection with the earliest dating from 1690, and a European collection with the earliest dating from 1551. The museum has also been gifted in excess of €5 million worth of Irish silver. Both acquisitions, together with cash donations from the public in excess of €250,000, will broaden the cultural offerings of the Viking Triangle before the end of 2019, by the opening of a Museum of Time and a Museum of Irish Silver. These developments demonstrate the success of the Viking Triangle project to date. However, more than this, it will make Waterford the home of Ireland’s first dedicated museum district, and a cultural hub both for the local community and foreign visitors to the city.

The fifth critical ingredient

Keeping the public onside, public engagement and staying relevant. Gone are the days when museums were viewed as the font of all knowledge and expertise regarding history and archaeology. Technology has transformed that situation. With today’s social media, the competition for the public’s time and attention is probably the biggest challenge facing museums. How do we remain relevant?

We used technology to capture imaginations and immerse the public in our heritage. All of the museums have a technological element. Chief among these is development of the King of the Vikings, Virtual Reality Experience. Opened in 2017, it is the first of its kind in the world. This not only tells the visitor about the history of the Vikings but attempts to place them directly in that time. Three audio visuals in the Medieval Museum help the audience to fully appreciate the remarkable stories behind the most important artefacts on display. More recently, in the Bishop’s Palace Museum, a 4D augmented reality presentation takes the audience on a magical and interactive journey in to the history of glassmaking in Waterford.

Utilising the ‘Museums Without Boundaries’ philosophy involved ensuring that the public realm was both animated and provided a suitable quality space in which to stage public events. Key to this development was accessibility, and ensuring that the pedestrianised public realm was both wheelchair and buggy friendly.

Reginald’s Tower

Bringing the story of medieval Waterford into the public realm

To create a link between the very modern Medieval Museum and the medieval period, the museum building was designed so that the thirteenth-century Choristers’ Hall that lies beneath the museum is visible through a glass pavement.

The use of Dundry stone on the outside of the building reflects the fact that in the thirteenth century, this stone was imported into Waterford as ballast for the ships that carried luxury products into the city. The stone was used in the old cathedral and in the Choristers’ Hall to dress the door, windows and pillars.

A bronze sculpture of Strongbow and Aoife sat side-by-side provides a great opportunity for guests to grab a memento, with the backdrop of the location in which they were wed.  

Outside of Greyfriars, the former Franciscan Friary, is a bronze sculpture of Father Luke Wadding and a glass information panel about his life and works along with an enamel silhouette of a friar.

The Viking Triangle today

Bringing Waterford from 1700 out into the public realm

As part of the public realm works, the eighteenth-century Chairmans’ Arch was reinstated. This was where sedan chairmen sheltered while they waited to collect church-goers from Christchurch Cathedral. Inside the arch are two glass panels outlining the significance of the arch and the sedan chair.

Three large, glass, multilingual information signs adorn the garden of the Bishop’s Palace and tell the history of the Cathedral, the still-functional Widows Apartments from 1702, and the Palace itself.

Thomas Francis Meagher is commemorated at 33 the Mall. This is the site where he first flew the Irish Tricolour, and is now adorned with a bronze medallion, blue plaques, as well as an equestrian statue further down the Mall. William Vincent Wallace, his contemporary, who also features in the Bishop’s Palace, has a bronze bust outside Theatre Royal, where many of his works were performed.

In Cathedral Square, a beautiful bronze sculpture commemorating the ‘Boy Soldier’, John Condon, who died at the age of fourteen, reflects the exhibition in the Palace in which he is featured. While on the quay is a modern artistic memorial to the sinking of the Coningbeg and Formby during World War I.

A contemporary artistic feature commemorating the 1916 Rising ornaments the Bishop’s Palace grounds, as does a sculpture commemorating the men from Waterford who fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. Also in the garden is a bronze bust of John Hearne, the architect of the Irish Constitution and Ireland’s first ambassador to the United States.

Over the past eight years a run-down sector of the city desperately in need of economic and cultural regeneration has, thanks to the Viking Triangle Project, been transformed. It is now a year-round thriving hub of activity, welcoming over 250,000 visitors a year to its diverse cultural attractions including the world-famous House of Waterford Crystal.

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