Walters plans family-friendly renovations Architecture: The art gallery is going to convert part of its '74 building into a two-story Family Art Center featuring three sure-fire draws arms and armor, Egyptian artifacts and no admission fee.

August 18, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Over the next three years, the Walters Art Gallery intends to convert part of its 1974 building to a two-story Family Art Center where admission will always be free.

One level of this free zone will feature family-friendly installations of two popular museum exhibits, the Egyptian Collection and the Arms and Armor Collection, as well as a museum store twice the size of the present one.

Another level will become a hands-on studio for children, with a small gallery set aside so budding artists can display their own creations.

Beyond the museum's walls, a Walters Education Outpost will be established at Port Discovery, the children's museum planned for Market Place in downtown Baltimore. Featuring the themes "Daily Life in Ancient Egypt" and "Chivalry," it will project the presence of the museum and its new family center into the Inner Harbor tourist district.

These family-oriented spaces and activities are critical elements a strategic plan for elevating the Walters to "a new level of excellence" by reaching out to the community in different ways and by reinstalling much of its permanent collection.

Assembled starting in the 19th century by William and Henry Walters, the collection was bequeathed to the city of Baltimore in 1931 and put on public view in 1934. Today the Walters is considered one of the world's great museums.

The goal behind the next round of improvements, directors say, is to make it even more accessible -- "an open textbook" spanning more than 5,000 years of art history.

The target date for completion is Dec. 31, 2000 -- the dawn of the new millennium.

"By the early years of the next century, the Walters will be a different institution in a variety of important ways," said director Gary Vikan, who is leading the effort to rethink and reposition it. "It is within our grasp to become the finest and most visitor-effective encyclopedic art museum in the world."

The comprehensive strategy was developed in conjunction with a master plan for a $12 million renovation that will get under way in 1997.

The planning effort was launched in 1994 primarily to address mechanical deficiencies in the Walters' 1974 wing. They include ceiling-mounted "reheater" coils that sometimes drip water and oil onto galleries below and a climate control system that does not maintain the steady temperature and humidity levels needed to preserve works of art.

But directors decided that, as long as the building had to be

repaired anyway, with spaces off-limits temporarily, they should take the opportunity to reinstall the collection there and enhance the visitors' experience in other ways as well.

At the northeast corner of Centre and Cathedral streets, the 1974 building is one of four occupied by the Walters. Others include the 1904 main gallery at 600 N. Charles St., a replica of the Palazzo Balbi in Genoa, Italy; a museum of Asian art at 1 West Mount Vernon Place; and administrative offices at 5 West Mount Vernon Place. The galleries draw 250,000 to 300,000 visitors a year.

The 1974 building houses collections that are among the Walters' greatest strengths, including its Egyptian, Greek and Roman works, and its medieval and Islamic art. On five levels, it also contains an auditorium, gift shop, space for temporary exhibits and offices for museum staff.

"With the renovation of the 1974 wing, our visitors will find half of the art we now display reinstalled to maximize its aesthetic impact while conveying the rich historical and human message of the cultures that gave it birth," Vikan said.

"From ancient Mesopotamia to late medieval Europe, these cultures and their works will come alive for the visitor through a variety of new learning media, including audio labeling and touch-screen computers linked to our collection database."

In addition, permanent exhibit spaces will be upgraded, and a new temporary exhibit space will be created on the top level of the 1974 building.

On most levels, the 1974 building has diagonal walls that do not line up with or lead into the rectangular galleries in the 1904 building next door. Some visitors have criticized the 1974 building for being a maze of spaces that are disorienting and hard to figure out. As part of the renovation, walls will be removed and reconfigured so the relationship between the 1974 and 1904 buildings is more clear.

"The weakest aspect of the building is the jumble of diagonals and orthogonals, so you don't know where you are," Vikan said. But "once you can get all the walls out, there are a lot of possibilities" for addressing the problem.

One of the most dramatic changes will be creation of the Family Art Center, designed to contain collections and displays that appeal to children and are relevant to the museum's educational mission.

It will occupy about 25 percent of the 1974 building, including sections of the first and basement levels. Its entrance is likely to take the shape of an Egyptian temple facade, rendered in a stone-like material.

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