The Walters Art Museum is confronting the uglier parts of its 126-year-old history, starting with a revised biography of its founding family. As part of an ongoing effort to promote diversity and equity, the museum has addressed the Walters’ ties to the Confederacy. William Walters and his son, Henry, were staunch supporters of the Confederacy, and directly benefited from racist labor practices before and after the Civil War. Museum staff will also examine how their racist worldview shaped the collection that is owned by the city.
“As historians, the process we have embarked on is to research and share the facts we have about our founders and our institution accurately and openly,” said museum director Julia Marciari-Alexander. “This museum was given to the city of Baltimore in 1931, and this is fundamentally a story of Baltimore’s history—and one we hope can lead to more inclusive dialogue going forward.”
Already wealthy from a venture producing iron in Pennsylvania, William Walters moved to Baltimore in 1841. When the Civil War broke out, he fled the city with his family for Paris, where he waited out the conflict. During that time, he traveled widely in Europe, amassing a collection of contemporary European painting, as well as Egyptian artifacts and Asian art and ceramics. After his death in 1894, his son left the collection, which then counted around 22,000 works, to the city “for the benefit of the public.” Throughout the museum, wall panels within the galleries and special installations focused on the founders’ philanthropy to Baltimore.
A new history assembled by the museum and released on Monday details the family’s support for the Confederacy in the years leading up to the Civil War. For several decades after the South conceded, the Walters continued to commemorate the war through art commissions, including a public monument to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Black people, freed or enslaved, were not and could not be American citizens.
The museum’s history also includes a new text that addresses the political factors that led to the assembly of its collection during the 19th century. Called “About the Walters,” it examines the “biased and Eurocentric view of what does, and does not, represent human artistic achievement” that guided Walters’ collecting and subsequent museum acquisitions.
The announcement follows a push from museum employees to address structural racism within the institution. Last fall, workers at the museum claimed that the Walters Art Museum reopened without proper protection for employees. In an open letter, the workers said that, in order to better the relationship with employees at the institution, there needed to be a discussion about its “sordid history with Black Americans, from [the museum’s] inception to our present moment.” “Only by acknowledging that past, and making good on commitments to change,” could the Walters stay relevant, they said.
The updated history is the first step in a long-term effort to “embed diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) in the organization.” The museum said that it intends to roll out a series of initiatives aimed at sustainability, visitor service, curation, and more over the next few years.
“In order to engage effectively with and serve a city where the majority of the population is Black, we must openly acknowledge our past and speak directly about the work we need to do to change,” Marciari-Alexander said.