While the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Crafts Council pose the question “What is luxury” in their current exhibition, the new display of the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum goes some way to defining it.
The Waddesdon Bequest is a collection of almost 300 objects of exquisite craftsmanship left to the Museum in 2898 by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild. The main body of the collection comprises medieval and renaissance pieces, with earlier works going back to the Hellenic period and the beautiful Holy Thorn Reliquary from the 1390′s and the Islamic glass Palmer Cup from around 1200. To add a touch of humour, there are also some 19th century fakes. The Collection includes Renaissance metalwork, ceramics, jewellery, glass, enamels, rock crystal pieces, majolica and guns, all executed with the best and most lavish craftsmanship of the period and takes its inspiration from the Shatzkammer or Treasure Houses built within Renaissance palaces, for only the most privileged guests to see.
Originally displayed in the specially-designed New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, the Collection is now on show in one of the Museum’s oldest spaces, Sir Robert Smirke’s original Reading Room which the architects Stanton Williams have been adept at converting to display use so that, from the heavy entrance doors onwards, it has the atmosphere of a Shatzkammer and, as with the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, hints of a high quality Bond Street gallery, with the objects brilliantly lit against the dark walls. At high level a video shows Waddesdon Manor itself, relating the Bequest to its previous location.
The angular geometrical showcases allow the visitors to see many of the objects from several viewpoints and allow views through the room, with several of the smaller items being suspended within the cases. Around the perimeter, cases for some of the most unique items interconnect with the original library shelving. Stanton Williams and the Museum have created an gem of gallery to show off this collection of unique treasures, while enhancing the architecture of the original Reading Room for a 21st century museum use.