The Walters Art Museum was never on my radar until very recently. Maybe this is because I never spent much time in the Maryland / Washington DC area until last summer. But, that summer, suddenly I started hearing about how wonderful the Walters is. And, they do after all claim to have the second-largest manuscript collection in the country, after that of the Morgan Library in NYC. So, a few weeks ago, I finally made it a point to go visit.
The Walters is, from the first moment one steps inside one of the galleries, a gorgeous museum. Truly stunning. The rooms themselves, the way they are decorated and arranged, are art themselves. Sadly, near as I can tell, the museum owns no truly outstandingly famous artworks. If you went through Gardner’s or Stokstad’s “Survey of World Art History” textbooks, you would find numerous pieces belonging to the Metropolitan, to the MFA in Boston, but I’m not sure you’d find any at all belonging to the Walters. Still, this is nevertheless one of the most beautiful museums I have ever seen, and its artworks (including many by top-notch ultra-famous artists) could not be displayed in a more inspiring, alluring, beautiful environment.
One of the Renaissance or Baroque galleries.
Each and every room is done up to enhance the visitor’s experience with an environment that either provides historical or cultural context, or simply complements the experience in a more purely aesthetic/design sort of way. Most of the European paintings rooms are simply painted a deep red, or yellow, or blue, and I cannot be positive if this is meant to evoke a particular architectural style or type of space that existed at a particular time in history. But, the museum also includes a series of rooms meant to recreate the residence of a late 1600s elite Dutchman, including a sort of “Cabinet of Curiosities” hall and a private study; a room called “The Knight’s Hall” seeks to evoke the idea of a wealthy family’s reception hall in Western Europe c. 1525; and another room suggests the display aesthetics of the 19th century French Salons.
One of the Dutch rooms, made up to simulate the appearance and layout of the home of a wealthy merchant in late 17th century Holland.
The former residence which today houses the Chinese and Japanese galleries is done up just like the home of a late 19th century American collector of “Oriental” porcelains and other decorative pieces and export art.
Right: One of the Japanese art galleries, filled with precisely the type of objects a Westerner in the late 19th century might have viewed at Japan’s pavilions at the World’s Fairs, or might have obtained from dealers in “Oriental Art” at that time. Porcelains, furniture, fine articulated metalwork pieces, and the like.
The visitor is transported back in time, if not to the actual Chinese or Japanese historical/cultural context in which these objects were produced and sold, then at least to an an American historical context. Museum Studies often discusses the almost unavoidable problem of displaying objects outside of their cultural context. One thread of the philosophy of Artistic Appreciation would argue that objects stand on their own, that their beauty speaks for itself, and that art transcends time and place and culture, its pure beauty speaking to something more universal. Well, okay, sure, maybe. But Historians and Art Historians would also argue for appreciation of the fuller context in which an object was produced and used, the cultural contexts to which it belongs and to which it refers. Severing the object from that context and displaying it in a glass case does the object – and the viewer – a serious disservice. The Walters seeks to remedy that problem, and is perhaps more successful than the vast majority of museums I have visited.
However. Remember when I said they have the second-largest manuscript collection in the country? Yeah, (almost) none of those pieces are on display. Neither are *any* Chinese or Japanese paintings or prints, or indeed anything at all that’s light-sensitive and would need to get frequently rotated. On the positive side, this means that photography (even with flash!) is allowed throughout the museum, a definite plus, since you know my feelings on photography being allowed in museums. And, the Walters seems quite good about having a lot of their collections online.
I appreciate that museums are having a rough time these days, financially, but, really, displaying artworks should be the first priority. As one curator I spoke to recently said, referring to the museum’s inability (or unwillingness) to devote more resources to producing resources for researchers, “we are a museum, and our top priority is to put on exhibitions.” She may have been unnecessarily blunt about it, but at least she has her priorities straight. I don’t know what the Walters would have to cut in order to fund more regular rotations of light-sensitive materials such as ink paintings and woodblock prints, but this absolutely should be their top priority. (And the same goes for the MFA Boston, who, I hear, is also considerably scaling back their displaying of such objects.) Sculpture, pottery, and the like do not by themselves make for a proper representation of the art history of China or Japan, or indeed of most other parts of the world. Just because oil paintings are less light-sensitive doesn’t mean that European and American art should get somehow privileged, that we can show all of their works, while making it look like China and Japan only ever produced decorative arts like furniture and vases.
All photos my own. Taken 25 August 2012.