Under a new roof

January 12, 2003

VISITORS ARE IN for happy surprises when a wing housing five centuries of European art reopens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Gone are the antiseptic gallery walls. In their place, rich colors and better lighting help the museum's masterworks stand out.

And there is more. Exhibit cases interspersed amid canvases display snuff boxes, silver tureens and clay miniatures. A Louis XVI-era writing table and armchair stand next to a huge oil painting. These decorative pieces, rather than being distractions, offer chances to rest and refocus eyes. Yet other exhibit cases house rarely seen works on paper by Rembrandt.

"This is a new idea for us," associate director Jay Fisher told a preview tour.

The reinstallation is important because the Jacobs Wing, which has undergone a three-year renovation connected with roof replacement, is the logical starting point for the BMA's permanent exhibits. The European art from the 15th through 19th centuries and the adjoining Lucas Collection also serve as introductions to the next gallery: the world-famous Cone Collection of modern masterpieces.

One of the challenges of a successful museum is to bring out more of its treasures. The BMA, for example, owns some 85,000 works of art, of which only a fraction are on public view at any given time. Just the Lucas Collection has some 20,000 objects. Even the most avid museum-goer is unlikely to see much of that treasure trove in a lifetime.

Indeed, the reopened Jacobs Wing is unlikely to improve those odds. But its galleries will rotate more seldom-seen or newly restored pieces, adding to the excitement and sense of discovery that are so essential for satisfying museum experiences. Moreover, without overloading a visitor's senses, they give a hint of the variety of artifacts in the museum's collections.

Well done.

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