Unveiling a new spirit

Exhibits: An enthusiastic crowd of nearly 5,000 gets an eyeful of the remodeled -- and renamed -- Walters Art Museum.

October 21, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

At their best, museum exhibits tell stories.

Yesterday, the dozens of new pieces and features unveiled to about 5,000 visitors at the remodeled Walters Art Museum told not only of ancient civilizations, but of the museum itself and its effort to attract new legions of Baltimoreans.

Touch-screen computers, new audio tours, a room (modeled after a 16th-century knights' hall) where teen-agers quietly played checkers -- all are intended to make the Walters more accessible and less museum-ish. And yesterday, the beginning of a weekend-long reopening celebration, everything seemed to click.

"Look who is here: young people, lots of families, African-Americans," said Gary Vikan, the museum director. By mid-afternoon, nearly 5,000 visitors had streamed through the new glass entryway that opened at noon with the lowering of a red curtain and the reading of a congratulatory proclamation by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Among the newly expanded exhibits museum-goers encountered was one -- more topical than usual -- displaying Islamic art.

With a band of Muslim extremists having declared holy war on the United States, Vikan said he hopes the Walters can help educate people about the religion's true tenets. "There is so much uncertainty and fury, but we need to get above the noise and celebrate a great, ancient faith for what it is, and not curse it for what it is not," Vikan said.

The exhibit, in the Centre Street building, which was closed for three years, includes a plaque that appeared in a Muslim religious building about 675 AD. "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate," says its Arabic inscription.

Funk and funnel cake

The celebration, following a $24 million renovation, included face painting and other body art, a funk band and funnel cake -- attractions that might seem more suitable to a Woodstock concert than a museum housing Egyptian mummies and Renaissance sculpture.

Streets were closed around the museum to accommodate music stages, vendors and artists' tents. Men in medieval garb -- black leather mail, steel-plated elbow pads -- swung clubs at each other in a roped-off section of Mount Vernon Square.

There was so much to entice people outdoors on a brilliant, cloudless day that Vikan said, "I had this odd feeling that they would just stay outside, but they poured in."

The message of inclusiveness was not lost on some of the museum's most high-profile supporters.

In a speech before the doors opened, Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings made a point of applauding the museum for reaching out to minorities "so that the children who live in my neighborhood, only three minutes away from here, will come to the Walters and be a part of it."

Said Cummings, "One of the things that we have to do is make sure that all of us are included in this great city and this cultural renaissance that we are experiencing."

Yesterday, the museum staff tried to lure a new audience with activities that made the visitors more than spectators.

In a tent outside the museum, kids were asked for their collective rendering of a painting by Giambattista Tiepolo, an Italian artist. Each of dozens of children was assigned some paint and one panel of the painting to mimic; the squares were then fitted together into one.

As it took shape, the final product, as expected, bore little resemblance to the original work.

"He kind of went his own way," said Joel Bratton of Baltimore when asked about the red-and-aqua-splotched panel painted by his son, Brandon, 5.

`Something positive'

Besides the inviting weather, several visitors said there was another compelling reason to head to the Walters: to return to normality after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax scares.

"With all that's going on, it's good to be involved in something positive, especially with the kids," said Howard Francis, a Johns Hopkins University physician who brought his wife and two young children.

Another of the speakers, Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, was more philosophical about the importance of the Walters events.

"Do you think the Taliban would have this?" she said. "You cannot have creativity where there are dictatorships. You cannot have the expression of the human spirit where there are despots, because they stifle the creative."

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