Airgeadóir Four Centuries of Cork Silver and Gold


John Bowen – The Bowen Group


New exhibition space of the Crawford Municipal Gallery, Cork.

Project details:

Cork’s tenure as European Capital of Culture has provided the inspiration for the worlds first gallery exhibition dedicated to the work of the silversmiths and goldsmiths of Cork city and county. The result is “Airgeadoir” a display of four centuries of Cork Silver and Gold, which ran at the Exhibition Space of the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery from 11th April to 4th June 2005. The exhibition was conceived and arranged by John Bowen who has had a lifelong interest in Cork Silver.

The concept and design for the exhibition was by Wilson Architecture.

The initial brief for the project was to create sixteen themed displays to exhibit over two hundred and fifty artefacts of Cork silver and gold dating from as far back as the sixteenth century. Most of what was on exhibition had never been seen in public up to then. The brief stipulated that the exhibition would be temporary and be capable of being easily transported yet robust enough to provide the security required to protect these priceless artefacts. The entire exhibition installation needed to be completed on site within three days. The “plug and play” exhibition concept was created !

The architects desire was to create something different, an alternative to the standard methods of presenting silver, a mood enhancing space, using the physical layout of the showcases, sensitive lighting, information panels with scaffolding supports, and the punctuation of context rich video installations. The contradiction / relationship / interplay between the precious antique silver and gold, meticulously polished and treasured and the stark industrialised environment of the forty three mild steel showcases that envelop the artefacts was an integral part of exhibition design. Scaffolding frames supporting the graphic display panels completed the effect. Allowing the steel to remain in its raw state highlighted the metals qualities, strangely, through the impurities that manifested – welds, rust, oil marks, finger prints and reinforced the contrast with the treasure displayed within.

Traditionally, with silver, fibre optic lighting and blue backcloths are used to display it in museum settings. The Airgeadoir exhibition designers took a different approach, not only in the overall look of the exhibition but also the methods of lighting of the silver. Combinations of fluorescent luminaries and adjustable fibre optic fittings were used within the showcases. The fluorescent tubes, housed behind the opal Perspex innards of the cases illuminated the silver with a white light which emphasised the hallmarking, one of the most telling and interesting details for a silver enthusiast. It also threw light out onto the polished concrete floor providing the majority of the lighting for the space and subtly helping to guide visitors through the exhibition. The physicality of the display cases became secondary to the light being emitted. Where fibre optic lighting was used, it created a completely different atmosphere within the cabinet.

One of the major purposes of an exhibition design is display the qualities of the artefacts and to provide an informative and easily navigated route for the visitor. For Wilson Architecture it was also to create a design that brought an alternative concept through to fruition, to try something new, and to create an environment that showed Cork Silver and Gold as it most definitely deserves.