I don’t always post about art museum visits, because I generally find art exhibits very subjective and also because photography is often prohibited and that’s how I note all the things I might want to talk about without interrupting my flow. However, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a really interesting approach I’d like to discuss.
I visited the Walters while at the National Council on Public History conference in March, purely because I was with an art historian, she wanted to go to an art museum, and this one was free. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It gave the impression of being quite small, yet boasts “an overview of world art from pre-dynastic Egypt to 20th-century Europe, and counts among its many treasures Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi; medieval ivories and Old Master paintings; Art Nouveau jewelry and 19th-century European and American masterpieces.”
At first I was totally unimpressed. Random jumbles of art and objects, without labels except for the odd laminated booklet with diagrams. The more we wandered, though, the more I realized this was intentional. Rooms represent different time periods, and we’d started in the Renaissance period. These rooms were designed to recreate the way gentlemen would’ve outfitted such rooms — random assemblages of strange or unique things, with no direction for the visitor. The host would’ve explained different things, but of course you’d never know if he was telling the truth. Visitors to the museum, on the other hand, have recourse to the booklet (or free audio guide) for these particular objects, without the intrusion of labels onto the scene.
Upstairs, there are more traditional art galleries, interspersed with things like a French royal gallery hung in the traditional style of wall-to-wall paintings crammed together to impress the viewer, or full altars set up as they would be for use. What started as a less-than-impressive old-fashioned museum turned out to be a gleefully immersive experience, and one of the best fusions of art with history I’ve ever seen, both at the room level and in their choice of specific objects to display and interpret.
I particularly love that you can get out of the museum exactly as much as you want — move through quickly and look over the art, or go slowly and read all text, or more likely something in between. And, although I’m an outsider and can’t say for sure, they seem to be doing a great job of engaging with their public through varied exhibitions, programs, and kids’ activities. Highly recommended, and would visit again!