Ancient Art In A New Light

At the reborn Walters, what's new is how the museum sees itself -- and its visitors.

Cover Story

October 14, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

When Gary Vikan pauses in the newly renovated galleries at the Walters Art Museum, he stands at a crossroads of culture and time.

In front of the museum director, a silver chalice glints alluringly. For years, the Byzantine vessel was displayed in isolation. Now, it sits on a re-creation of a seventh-century altar amid other objects once used in worship: bowls for ritual washing, spoons for removing impurities from Eucharistic wine, an engraved plate for wafers of bread.

If the museum director turns his head, he can see a 13th-century Gothic altar, its gilded reliquary shimmering from afar. Through the pointed arches of the altar, he can glimpse a stained-glass window, light streaming through its panels and filling the air with hints of red and blue.

If he turns his head again, he can see elaborate Ethiopian processional crosses that span 500 years.

If he turns still again, he can see 16th-century turquoise tiles inscribed with verses from the Koran and the heavy doors, made of wood and inlaid with ivory, that once marked the entrance to an Islamic mausoleum.

And, if he wishes -- and pushes a button on his audio guide -- he can listen to the chants, songs or verses from each of these cultures and times.

Vikan breathes deeply as if to inhale the experience. "This!" he says. "This is the feeling that I love. This could make someone religious. This is to die for. This is what we wanted to do."

This is the new Walters Art Museum.

After three years of renovations, the Walters Saturday will unveil its newly reinstalled permanent collections. The $24 million construction project includes 39 reconfigured galleries, a new four-story glass entryway with a spiral staircase, a new cafe and expanded gift shop, touch-screen computers, a virtual tour and a 306-stop audio guide.

But what's different at the Walters goes beyond the merely physical. The changes reflect a transformation in how the institution sees itself and how it wishes to be seen -- and experienced -- by the public.

For decades, the Walters, with its rich holdings of illuminated manuscripts and Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine art, has been content with a reputation for excellence among scholarly circles. Its hushed galleries, with their shelves crammed with gold and silver objects, row upon row of marble sculptures and glass-entombed manuscripts, seemed intended for the initiated. For the general public, the museum's message seemed to be, "Stay away." Or, at the very least, "Be quiet and behave."

For all its beauty, the institution made little effort to engage its visitors. To the unschooled, viewing art at the Walters could be like reading statistics on the back of a baseball card: You either got it, or you didn't.

"We knew we wanted to reinstall and present the collections in a way that told a story, but showcased each piece," says Adena Testa, chairwoman of the board of trustees. "And we all knew that we didn't want the Walters to feel exclusive."

The revamped museum now aims to attract more diverse audiences, in particular families with children and African-Americans. It wants to compete internationally for higher-profile exhibitions that, in turn, will draw more attention and more visitors. And it wants to be considered a destination for tourists, including residents of museum-rich Washington and Philadelphia.

What is most striking, however, is that the Walters has reinvented itself, moving from a place in which to view masterpieces to one in which to experience them. Its goal is to give visitors a sense of how the art objects -- from medieval weaponry to Egyptian canopic jars -- were used and understood at the time they were created.

Galleries, formerly serene shrines for art, have become evocative settings in which the story of their collections unfolds. Theatrical lighting causes objects to shimmer like stars on a stage. Artworks, once displayed in isolation, now are placed in context. Opportunities to connect with the art pepper the exhibition. The result is an installation that is at once scholarly and accessible.

Two lioness-headed goddesses gaze sternly from double-tiered thrones. Each weighs 3,000 pounds. They represent Sekhmet, an Egyptian deity who once guarded a temple in Karnak, Egypt. Now they flank the entrance to the Walters' ancient Egyptian galleries.

Visitors step past the goddesses into a darkened chamber, where another deity waits. This is Enehy, temple musician.

Carved from white limestone between 1307 and 1250 B.C., the statue is shrouded in soft light, an effect intended to emulate the glow of torches. She sits upon her throne, expressionless, right hand flat against her knee. A sistrum, or rattle used in worship, is clasped in her left.

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