Spreading the word on the Walters Curator Will Noel has plans for expanding the visibility of the gallery's collection of medieval manuscripts and rare books.


August 30, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,sun art critic

I'm in a hurry. I appreciate that things don't happen over-night. But they will happen, and I will make them happen."

Words from a young politician out to reshape the world, or a young businessman out to make billions? No, they're from Will Noel, a young art historian out to spread the word about the Walters Art Gallery's medieval manuscripts and rare books.

As the department's third head in its 64-year history, Noel has big plans. He plans to put manuscripts all over the museum; he plans to put the manuscripts on CD-ROM; he plans international loan exhibits with manuscripts borrowed from the greatest collections.

He can talk for two hours about his plans and never repeat himself.

A year ago he zoomed into town, a 32-year-old Englishman with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. He took charge of the second largest collection of manuscripts in America (after New York's Morgan Library) and one of the finest collections anywhere. "It was a chance to play a role for a really world-class collection that in many other institutions I'd have to wait a long time to do," he says.

Because of his youth and relative lack of museum experience, his job title is assistant curator, but he's the department's sole curator. "I have lots of advice here from many, many people, but essentially this is my show to run, and for a collection of this scale that's unusual."

While it may have seemed daring to hand the job to one so young, Noel already had two books to his credit, and "He's acknowledged internationally as an important scholar in the field," says Daniel Weiss, chairman of the art-history department at Johns Hopkins University and a fellow medievalist.

He's also extremely gregarious, with tremendous energy and personal magnetism. Incurably enthusiastic, he peppers his conversation with superlatives like "super," "fabulous" and "really, really good," spoken in the sort of round-toned British accent Americans swoon over.

"I so much enjoy his great vivacity and utter charm," says Roger S. Wieck, curator of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan Library. "I liked him in an instant."

To Walters director Gary Vikan, Noel wasn't a long shot among the 15 or so applicants interviewed, but the obvious choice. "He was so exciting, so smart, so ambitious and had done so much in such a short time that he was far and away the best person available," Vikan says. "He explodes with ideas, and that's exactly what I like to see."

In the past year, he has familiarized himself with the collection, created three shows of manuscripts from it, made a computer record of 1,300 previously unrecorded early printed books, seen to the needs of 200 visiting scholars, begun teaching Johns Hopkins students, and drawn up an ambitious five-year plan for his department to greatly expand its visibility.

"Exposing as many people to the art of the book as possible is my aim," says Noel. The Walters collection deserves maximum exposure. It contains 850 manuscripts and about 2,500 rare books. Its groupings range from 300 jewel-like, lavishly illustrated prayer books called "books of hours" to about 130 Islamic manuscripts to four world-class Mughal manuscripts from India. Its individual treasures include a first folio edition of Shakespeare, a missal thought to have belonged to St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian Bible supposed to have belonged to a German emperor, a first edition of the works of Aristotle and a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible.

Currently, the former manuscript gallery is closed along with the Walters' entire 1974 building for a three-year renovation. By the time it reopens in 2001, Noel plans to increase the number of manuscripts on exhibit from 20 to about 50. He will have a larger gallery for manuscript shows, plus a "workshop for words" annex where people can learn about how a manuscript was made and preserved.

And as part of the re-installation he also will integrate manuscripts with the Walters' other collections. So a medieval altar outfitted with medieval candlesticks and a medieval cross will now display a medieval missal, too.

"This is something no other museum in the United States can do," says Noel. "The Morgan Library has got plenty of medieval manuscripts, but it's got no medieval objects. We've got world-class collections of both."

And the manuscript collection's so wide-ranging it can be

integrated with the Walters' Asian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Byzantine, Islamic and Renaissance holdings as well as European medieval ones.

The CD-ROM project, which Noel plans to sign a contract for by Thanksgiving, also will greatly increase the accessibility of the manuscript collection. Eventually, people will be able to "page through" manuscripts on computer screens and see all of the illustrations and some of the text as well.

"When manuscripts are on exhibition, people always say, 'I wish I could turn the pages,' " says Noel. "I think - much more for manuscripts than for painting and sculpture - electronic imagery can do that for you."

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