Inside the installation of 'From Rye to Raphael' at Walters

Show will celebrate museum's 80th anniversary by exploring the legacy of founders William and Henry Walters

  • Mike McKee, left, a senior art handler, and collections technician Craig Bowen check the placement of the bronze sculpture "Arab Horseman Killing A Lion" by Antoine-Louis Barye that is part of the new exhibit "From Rye to Raphael: The Walters Story" at the Walters Art Museum.
Mike McKee, left, a senior art handler, and collections technician… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
September 27, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley | The Baltimore Sun

The first problem with moving the antique dragon fountain on display at the Walters Art Museum was that it's really, really large and really, really heavy: a 250-pound bronze behemoth that's about five and a half feet tall and three feet around.

The second problem is that the 19th-century artwork is irreplaceable, is awkwardly shaped and has about a zillion fragile protuberances that could snap off under just a small amount of misapplied pressure. The urn, which is at the Walters on a long-term loan from Towson University, shows a dragon perched on the rim of what appears to be a lotus flower. Its neck and back are arched and its teeth are bared. The needle-like scales bristle, the beast's claws dig into the blossom, and the dragon's tail curls sinuously around one of the urn's four slender legs.

Mike McKee, the Walters' senior art handler, couldn't imagine how he was going to get a grip on the thing, let alone carry it from the museum's galleries in the Hackerman House and down a flight of marble steps, and then into the museum's Centre Street building.

But curator Jo Briggs had her heart set on displaying the magnificent vessel in the big show opening Oct. 26 at the Walters Art Museum. McKee knew he couldn't let her down, so he got to work.

"You look at all the obstacles and you weigh all the possibilities," he said. "You calculate the weather, and you look at the bumps in the floor. But you can't plan for everything."

The Walters recently provided reporters with a rare behind-the-scenes look at the often-fraught installation process for its new exhibit, "From Rye to Raphael," which will celebrate the museum's 80th anniversary by examining the legacy of founders William and Henry Walters. (The "rye" in the exhibit name refers to the trade in rye whiskey that served as the basis of the family fortune.)

It takes lots and lots of pairs of gloves that are nitrate-free so they don't leave a deposit of powder on the artworks, custom-built cases, a textbook's worth of minute mathematical calculations, kilos of silica gel and plenty of human ingenuity to take a priceless artwork from its protective packaging and put it on display in an unpredictable public world.

The number of things that can go wrong are endless. For example, in 2011, a cleaning lady working in Germany's Museum Ostwall accidentally scrubbed away the patina on a $1.1 million sculpture by the late artist Martin Kippenberger.

"There's always a tension between preserving the objects and making them accessible," said Briggs, the Walters' assistant curator of 18th- and 19th-century art. "We want to keep the objects safe and keep them secure without putting too many barriers between the public and the art."

As Briggs describes it, collecting art was a contact sport for well-bred, wealthy folk in the early 20th century. Henry Walters and his "frenemy" J.P. Morgan constantly tried to one-up each other and engaged in the art world equivalent of trash talk.

"William was the father, and he liked really big, serious French paintings usually with a moralizing purpose," Briggs said. "He wanted his art to teach you something. He was the more altruistic than his son, and he was more discriminating."

In contrast, Henry Walters "liked small, shiny things," Briggs said.

"He bought a lot of snuff-boxes and jewelry and very beautiful Lalique and Tiffany pieces. Henry had a more easy relationship with his wealth than his father, and he was more competitive.

"If something caught Henry's eye, he would buy it. He'd hoover up everything he could see because he knew that J.P. Morgan was right behind him."

About 300 of Henry and William's favorite things will be spread through the seven galleries making up "From Rye to Raphael." About half of the pieces have not been shown recently.

Highlights will include a 19th-century salon-style gallery that re-creates a room in the original home that was crammed floor to ceiling and wall to wall with artworks, gold frames gleaming against plum wallpaper. There's also a gallery of French works by such painters as Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Jacques Rosseau and Jean-Leon Gerome.

And each one of those paintings, bracelets and sculptures requires the kind of obsessive monitoring of vital signs most commonly reserved for newborn infants.

For instance, the plexiglass cases in which the most fragile pieces are enclosed weren't picked up at an office supply store. Each was custom-built to provide exactly the correct amount of weight to support each artwork. Each display case is swaddled in its own designer environment. Silica gel, which absorbs water, is inserted into the stand on which the plexiglass case rests. The museum staff can vary the types and amounts of silica to create the precise level of humidity that a particular artwork requires.

But not everything can be preserved behind plexiglass, such as the giant, 19th-century silk tapestry known as "The Mongol Invasion."

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