The Walters: Worth the Wait
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2001
Saturday, after three years of major renovation that reduced the main building of the Walters Art Museum to what director Gary Vikan calls a "concrete shell," the museum reopens to the public.
A mere 10 days ago, as the media gathered to tour the much-changed space -- the Centre Street building was originally built in 1974 in the fortresslike Brutalist style -- signs of dress-rehearsal jitters were everywhere. Over here, exhibitions staff members debated whether to stanchion off the one or two of the 39 reinstalled galleries in which artworks were still leaning up against the walls. Over there, display cases stood empty or out of place, like the one for the 13th-century Flemish choir book known as "The Beaupre Antiphonary," which had yet to be moved into its new home: an alcove suffused with late-afternoon light pouring through stained-glass windows from the cathedral at Soissons.
Other vitrines were marked with Post-it notes reading "Tilt coins up" or "Brush deck," the latter a reference to cleaning some tiny motes of dust -- almost imperceptible, except to the trained eye of a curator -- on the black background of a display. Stacks of reupholstered red cushions sat ready to be reattached to the auditorium chairs, while in a nearby gallery Baltimore art collector John Ford, whose Indian and Himalayan works are the focus of a special exhibition, gently tried to convince a curator that a 600-year-old fired clay sculpture of Vajravarahi was not hung straight.
All in all, the mood was remarkably calm as zero hour approached.
The most noticeable change -- and likely the first thing that visitors will see -- is a four-story, glass atrium that has been grafted onto the museum's main entrance like a foyer. Not only does it open what was once a dusky portal to the light of day but, creating a buffering airlock, it has the added effect of keeping heat and air conditioning where they're supposed to be.
"In the winter we heated Centre Street," jokes Vikan about the old days when the front doors opened onto the sidewalk. "And in the summer we cooled Centre Street. We paid more in heat and air conditioning than we did on our curators."
Along with new, easier to read signage, more restrooms, better lighting and numerous other facility upgrades, subtler changes abound. Old friends -- such as the well-known Rubens Vase, a fourth-century vessel carved from a single piece of pink agate that takes its name from the painter who once owned it -- are still on view, but in an altered layout that places greater emphasis on context than on chronology, and one that sacrifices quantity for quality. Although certain areas have grown -- the gift shop, naturally, has doubled in size, and a new gallery now shows off the museum's collection of Ethiopian religious icons -- there are actually fewer artifacts on display than before.
What prompted the changes, Vikan says, was a desire to eliminate the "visual cacophony" that characterized the display of the permanent collection, whose former impact he likens to listening to "a diva singing on Pier 6 in the middle of a hurricane." This, he says, is his museum's effort to get that diva (a collection that includes what he calls the best trove of illuminated manuscripts in the world) "into the Meyerhoff."
Those who remember the hurly-burly of some erstwhile exhibits will take his point. I, for one, will miss the old Arms and Armor Hall, a columned and vaulted-ceilinged space in the Charles Street Building (built in 1904) that has been transformed into a brightly lit cafe. Weapons and suits of armor are now integrated into galleries throughout the museum, based on the period and country of their origin. A nice replacement of sorts is the Knight's Hall, a new gallery that features a low-slung wood table (of medieval design but contemporary manufacturer) at which visitors can rest or play a game of chess.
Other nonstructural changes include four different audio guides boasting a total of eight hours of recorded guided tours, as well as significant adjustments to the lighting scheme. Indoor objects have generally been moved away from the windows (e.g., the museum's seven Roman sarcophagi, which are now dramatically top-lit to emphasize the relief carving), while figurative sculptures that were meant to be seen outdoors have been moved closer to natural light.
The Walters Art Museum, 600 North Charles St., Baltimore. 410/547-9000.