- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

BALTIMORE — Mention art museums and Washington has an edge: Think the Corcoran, the Kreeger and the Phillips, not to mention the panoply of galleries under the Smithsonian's wing — the National Gallery, the Renwick, the Hirshhorn, the Freer and Sackler.
But Baltimore has the Walters. And what a gem it is.
The Walters Art Museum collection is smaller than that of larger museums, but its breadth is remarkable. Its collections survey 55 centuries and include 30,000 of some of the finest pieces ever created: creamy, sculptured ivories; delicate, glittering jewelry; intricate enamels; shining bronzes.
The museum's assembly of illuminated manuscripts and rare books is world-renowned. Its Egyptian and medieval collections are nationally revered, as are its holdings in Renaissance, Asian and 19th-century art.
The Ancient Near Eastern art collection, for example, is small but comprehensive, displaying works from every major culture of the region: Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite (present-day Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Israel). One well-known piece here is the Assyrian Winged Genius Relief (883-859 B.C.), from the palace of the powerful and feared king Ashurnasirpal II.
"With 55 centuries of art, we have 50 centuries more than where the National Gallery even starts," says Gary Vikan, the museum's director and curator of its medieval collection.
"I visited the Getty recently, a massive museum, far better funded," Mr. Vikan says of the Los Angeles institution founded by oil magnate and art collector J. Paul Getty and maintained by the Getty Trust. "I told one of their directors, 'I'm jealous of your facilities.' He answered, 'I'm jealous of your collection.'
"And that's what it's all about, really."The museum is really three public and interconnected buildings: one on Charles Street, the original art gallery, which was completed in 1908 and contains the museum's Renaissance and Baroque collections; the Hackerman House at 1 W. Mt. Vernon Place, which houses its collection of Asian art; and the Centre Street building, renovated in October 2001 at a cost of $24 million. A fourth building, at 5 W. Mt. Vernon Place, the original home of the founders, is used for offices.
The Centre Street project upgraded the climate control systems, walls, windows, security and fire suppression systems and even the collections themselves. The building now boasts 39 newly configured and refurbished galleries, as well as a new four-story glass entryway with a majestic spiral staircase.
All of this sits in the middle of an upscale 19th-century neighborhood five minutes north of the Inner Harbor — the Mount Vernon Cultural District, which hums with activity amid bright rowhouses, pocket parks, museums, restaurants, theaters and churches.
It's a neighborhood, and a building, with more than the usual marks of distinction."This is where they come to film Washington Square now, not in New York. There aren't any neighborhoods like this anymore," Mr. Vikan says in his office at 5 West Mt. Vernon St. Then he lets a visitor in on one additional claim to fame: The high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room he works in was used as the nursery of a famous villain in the recent movie "Red Dragon."
"This is where Hannibal Lecter was born," he says.
Were it not for the drive, talent and generosity of two men, we might never have seen any of it.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Baltimore banking and railroad magnate William Thompson Walters and his son, Henry, acquired a massive and diverse collection of artwork from around the world.
The elder Walters had begun collecting pieces from local artisans in the mid-1850s, then augmented his collection during travels throughout France. Eventually his collection grew to include everything from European masters and decorative arts to Greek and Roman antiquities and Far Eastern ceramics.
In 1874, Walters began informally showing his collection at his home, at 65 Mount Vernon Place, for 50 cents a person, and gave the money to charity.
At his death in 1894, the elder Walters bequeathed the collection to Henry, who greatly expanded it with bold and visionary acquisitions, like the sweeping purchase of the entire contents of a Roman palace, nearly 1,700 pieces.
"The Walters simply had a compulsion to collect, a need to engage with 'things,'" says Mr. Vikan. "They also had a talent for identifying quality pieces. Their 'eye' was astounding."
Henry Walters bought the three houses adjoining his father's property to store and display the collection. He died in 1931, leaving the buildings and the collections — some 22,000 pieces — to Baltimore, "for the benefit of the public."
The Walters Art Gallery opened to the public in November 1934 — and last year changed its name to The Walters Art Museum in the belief that the word "museum" better represented its founders' vision of making art accessible to all.
Mr. Vikan calls the donation of the buildings and collections "the largest single act of cultural philanthropy in the history of the United States.
"Sharing the collections was their way to use art to better humanity. They both believed art was essential and educational to the public," he says.
The goal of William and Henry Walters is still apparent in its displays today.
The museum itself is one reason. Its smaller size and original residential use give it the "homey" feel of being in someone's parlor — unlike a traditional, velvet-roped, "indoor voices" type of museum. For example, the Grand Salon in the Centre Street building, in which many of the Walters' 19th-century paintings are displayed, is a re-creation of William T. Walters' original 1884 personal gallery. Even his refurbished sofas can be sat on.
The museum also has made efforts to boost interactivity. A new, self-guided, 300-stop audio tour has been introduced, as well as touch screen kiosks and hands-on activities for children.
"It's really cool," says Stephen Simmons, 14, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "You can get right up close to things and see the stuff we read about in school, like in King Arthur and Shakespeare." Wearing a wrinkled blue T-shirt, frayed khaki pants and flip-flops on a 30-degree day, he and his father, Dwight Simmons, have stopped in Baltimore on their way to visit family in Washington.
"We just kind of stumbled onto this place," says Mr. Simmons. "But I'm glad we found it. We've actually already stayed here a lot longer than we had planned today. But he likes it, so that's good," he laughs, motioning to his eye-rolling son.
Nearby, a baby in a stroller tugs, mesmerized, at a jingly, child's-eye-view reproduction of a chain mail garment, part of the "education gallery" adjacent to the 13th-century Morgan Picture Bible exhibition.
Also available are magnetic storyboards, helmets and costumes to try on, and a small stage on which children can perform.
"I think art can be very interesting for kids, and we have things here that will make kids want to come back again and again." says Mr. Vikan. "Traditional art can compete in the market of cartoons and Disney and such, if presented in an interesting way."
Another unusual quality of the museum is its method of installation. Items are often grouped together and displayed as they would have appeared in their original time frame: silver utensils, plates and goblets are arranged together in place settings; mummies are displayed with funerary tools and jars.
The Knight's Hall in the Centre Street building, part of the "Wondrous Journeys" exhibit, is a re-created reception hall of a wealthy Northern European merchant at the end of the Middle Ages (around 1500 A.D.). Visitors can sit at a large, wooden table in the middle of an oak plank floor and play chess or backgammon. Around them are the true furnishings of castles of that time: tapestries, armor and a 16th-century elk-antler chandelier.
"It's much like presenting a singer in an opera hall. He has the music and the costumes to help make his story heard," Mr. Vikan says. "We go for a holistic, 'gestalt' approach to present these items in as thorough a manner possible. Our goal here is the experience."
The Walters museum seems to have something for everyone. A visitor may not recognize a work by Gerome or Daumier, but will probably spot the Monet, Faberge and Tiffany pieces. And although the Walters concentrates on art instead of artifacts, it does have the requisite mummy — several, actually, including a human, a falcon and a mummified cat wrapped in linen bandages, the latter a sight that is oddly endearing.
Another exhibit that appeals to those of any age and taste is "The Book of Kings: the Morgan Library Picture Bible," on loan from the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City until Dec. 29.
The Picture Bible, disbound for the first time ever, recounts the best-known stories of the Old Testament in incredible color and detail. Commissioned by Louis XI of France, it was also owned by the bishop of Cracow, Poland, and the Persian ruler Shah Abbas, showing the importance and universality of the manuscript.
"It's one of the greatest masterpieces of the medieval world," says Dr. William Noel, curator of manuscripts and rare books. "It's totally unique. It also provides a window onto 13th-century life because the artists depicted biblical events like David and Goliath and Noah's ark in their dress and settings of the day. We get to see what it was like to farm, to build, to wage war in those times."
The pages are painted in deep jewel tones and gold leaf. Inscriptions in the languages of several religions curl around the edges of each page.
"This book is fascinating because, like all books before the development of printing, it was made completely by hand. Although it was made for only one or two people, it has been viewed by Christians, Muslims and Jews throughout the centuries. And now as it's on display, it continues to inspire everyone who sees it today."
"Wondrous Journeys," part of the Walters' permanent installations, traces the path of artistic achievement in the West from pre-dynastic Egypt to the early Renaissance through nearly 2,000 works of art. The pieces are drawn almost exclusively from William and Henry Walters' personal collection, such as Greek and Roman pieces like the seven intricately carved marble sarcophagi of the Calpunii Pisones family.
The Walters' Ethiopian religious art collection renowned as the best outside of Ethiopia itself is also central to the exhibit, as well as other pieces like the Torah Ark Door, Hugo van der Goes' masterpiece, "Donor with St. John the Baptist," and the world-famous Rubens Vase, carved from solid agate and once owned by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.
One reason for the success of this installation has been the work of Regine Schulz, curator of ancient art, whom Mr. Vikan credits with making a number of new discoveries in her 14 months at the museum. "Our Egyptian collection is wonderful," says Ms. Schulz. "And we still do not know the history of all our pieces. Recently we had a set of two jars, but upon further study realized they were ink pots. They had been given as a gift to the very famous Paser, a high official, by Setahy the First, who was the father of Ramses the Great. Today this would be similar to finding something that Napoleon had once held in his hands."
The museum's 19th-century art collection is acclaimed and a favorite of many visitors. These paintings and sculptures were acquired as the very artists were developing their talents in William and Henry Walters' lifetimes. Examples of European and American art, including impressionists like Monet, Pissarro and Degas, are here. This era was also rich in neoclassicism, romanticism, realist and genre painting, exoticism and landscapes, and all of these schools are represented, in keeping with the desire to offer a thorough collection.
The Treasury and Decorative Arts sections house the finest jewelry collections of all periods of any American museum. Some of the most glorious objects in the Walters' 19th-century collection are here: precious, sparkling jewelry by Tiffany and Lalique, delicate porcelain by Sevres and beloved Faberge eggs. These masterpieces trace decorative innovation from the Napoleonic era through art nouveau and art deco to early 20th-century design.
"Without question, we are most proud of our 19th-century collection," says Mr. Vikan. "It's still where I most like to go and visit after the museum has closed."
Numerous other collections are currently exhibited in the Walters. "Art of the Ancient Americas" features about 135 objects that have never been shown before from Maya, Aztec and Valdivian cultures. Exhibits on Dutch and Flemish painting and South Italian Style Greek vase painting have been very popular.
"Ringside: The Boxing Paintings and Sculptures of Joseph Sheppard" keeps alive the Walters' tradition of showing local artists. This exhibition of 13 works by the Baltimore artist features boxing paintings and a new interpretation of "Knockdown," which Mr. Sheppard first painted for a 1964 Sports Illustrated cover.
In the coming year, "Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde" and the "Faberge Menagerie," an exhibit of Faberge animals, will be displayed in conjunction with Baltimore's Vivat Russian Festival.
"We get to create the opportunity to be transported in time and space by the beauty and creative genius of the past," says Mr. Vikan. "That is art."

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