A Review of the Walters Art Museum

I recently spent a lovely few hours at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and discovered that is one of the best art collections you can see for free in the United States. The museum contains four well-curated floors of artworks from the ancient world to the 19th century (plus a touch of contemporary) in a hybrid building with a nice mixture of period and modern architecture. I highly recommend a visit if you’re ever in the area.

The Collection

Based on the collection of 19th-century railroad tycoons and art collectors William T. Walters (father) and Henry Walters (son), the offerings are very high quality and surprisingly diverse. As we might expect from a collection established in the Gilded Age, it’s got lots of western European art, but that’s not all. I also saw great selections of ancient Egyptian art (mummies included), Islamic art, two different exhibitions of Asian art, arms and armor from multiple cultures, and a little bit of ancient American art. There’s also a small amount of contemporary art that harmonizes well with the historical majority. Both the collection and the building have expanded and evolved far beyond their Walters family origins with plenty of new acquisitions. While it might not be at the same level of prestige as places like the Met or even the Frick, let’s just say that there’s definitely no second-rate art here.

The museum is small enough to see everything in one visit but large enough to get slightly overwhelmed in doing so. (I definitely had museum fatigue by the end.) None of the collection areas are massive, but there’s plenty of memorable stuff worth seeing in each one. This is definitely a museum where you need to spend the entire afternoon in order to fully appreciate it.

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Not only is the collection great, but it’s also displayed in a way that I found to be very effective. The curatorial choices are smart but measured – there aren’t a lot of dramatic installations, scene-setting soundtracks, or extreme lighting. Artworks are highlighted and contextualized using more subtle methods instead. There’s certainly exhibition design and scene-setting present, especially in a set of rooms set up to resemble old-fashioned display places like a 17th-century collector’s study and a cabinet of curiosities, but nothing feels too theatrical and distracting. The museum does suffer from some dark lighting, though I think that may have simply been dead bulbs in a few display cases.

Within the usual divisions based on time and place of origin, artworks tend to be arranged according to broad themes (subject matter, materials, etc.). For example, I really enjoyed the 19th-century galleries, which mixed European and American artworks (primarily academic rather than Modern) in different styles by grouping them based on common themes like animals, childhood, or interactions with Africa. All the texts I read were interesting and informative, but they’re definitely subordinate to the visuals. You don’t have to read every label to get something out of these displays.

There’s also a nice willingness to mix artworks from different cultures and show their similarities. I absolutely loved a round room in the medieval galleries dedicated to the arts of the Orthodox Christian world, which juxtaposed artworks from Greece/Byzantium, Ethiopia, Armenia, Russia, and more. It was difficult to tell which of exhibitions are temporary and which are permanent, since all came from the permanent collection, but everything seemed pretty fresh and current to me.

Conservation studio statue
The latest project in the Walters’ conservation studio. Photo by A Scholarly Skater.

One of my favorite parts of my Walters Art Museum experience was the Conservation Window. Located on the top floor near the Arts of Asia and Islam galleries, this is a small area of the conservation department visible to the public via a sliding glass window. There, you can talk to a conservator and learn about what they’re working on. I had the nicest conversation about a medieval Iranian plaster statue currently being studied for an upcoming exhibition. If you visit and Conservation Window is still a thing, I recommend stopping and asking the conservator on duty about their work. Actually, friendly and talkative employees seem to be the standard at this museum, since I also had a fantastic conversation with a guard in the first floor galleries, and the entryway guards were very helpful when I had to check a large bag.

The Building

Townhouse view Walters
View up the spiral staircase of the townhouse at 1 Mount Vernon Place. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by A Scholarly Skater.

The Walters building is actually a composite of three conjoined structures. They are a 1909 palazzo commissioned by Henry Walters, a 19th-century townhouse, and a 1970s Brutalist building. The palazzo’s elegant architectural details juxtapose surprisingly well with the large windows and open floor plan of the 1970s building. There’s plenty of natural light, even with the semi-translucent shades drawn to protect the art from too much light exposure, and lots of room to move around. You definitely don’t get the sense of being inside an historic building until you turn a corner and find some fabulous ornamental ceiling or staircase. (I can’t speak to the view from the exterior, since I visited on a rainy day and hurried inside as fast as possible.) The only thing is that this three-part building is difficult to get a sense of as a whole. Finding your way from one part to another isn’t straightforward, though this is a fairly minor problem since the elevators can take you to any sub-floor you want.


The Walters Art Museum is located in Baltimore, Maryland. Admission is always free. (However, parking in the lot next door costs $18, and I don’t recommend parking further away than that in this location.) The museum has a cafe that was slightly less overpriced than is typical, as well as a nice store.

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