The new old Walters Museum

Reopening: Profound changes in 1974 wing cast familiar objects in a wholly new light.

October 19, 2001

THE WALTERS Art Museum (nee Gallery) has been one of the greatest public art collections in North America since opening its doors in 1934. Now it looks the part. Inside.

The reopening of most of the Walters comes just after most of the Baltimore Museum of Art reopened. So the famine caused by simultaneous renovations of Baltimore's two major art museums is replaced by feasts for the eyes.

Habitues of the Walters will need several visits to readjust. Everything looks different, at least in the 1974 wing holding ancient and medieval art. (Much of the fourth-floor display of 19th-century art remains off-limits.)

It is mostly the same old stuff, in a new light. The presentation is dramatically changed, with thematic groupings, art shown in the uses intended and lighting that verges on theatrical.

People who have barely noticed Egyptian temple musician Enehy a hundred times will be transfixed by this stone beauty.

The time-traveler starting from early Christian art may choose one of three paths, as civilizations did, through Latin, Orthodox or Islamic arts.

One may confront Roman busts eye-to-eye, peering deep into their marble souls. Or admire Greek bodies, male and female, as though for the first time. Or be surrounded by Roman sarcophagi as in a spotlighted tomb.

The renovation is accompanied by other advances in museum technique, from headsets playing music appropriate to the displays to informative computers.

The 1974 wing, which always presented difficulties, is reordered, its space enlarged and linked better to the 1904 building.

The first major temporary exhibition is from the John and Berthe Ford collection of Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan art, on view till mid-January. After a tour to three other museums, a portion of this collection is destined for the Walters, adding a dimension to its rich Asian holdings.

This great repository of art given to the city and its people by Henry Walters upon his death in 1931 will now vividly reward owners who come to see it.

For old hands, the favorite pieces are still there. But the rearrangement will take some getting used to.

Until that has occurred, it is a new museum in town.

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