The Walters Art Museum.

In the interest of promoting diversity and equity, the Walters Art Museum has taken steps to confront its past and acknowledge its founders’ history as supporters of the Confederacy and beneficiaries of racist labor practices before and after the Civil War.

Directors disclosed today that the museum has prepared a “newly written history” of the institution to address the business practices and personal opinions of father-and-son founders William and Henry Walters and how their views shaped the museum that bears their name but is now owned by the city of Baltimore.

The museum also announced new strategic planning goals intended to “embed diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) in the organization.”

The moves are part of a series of initiatives taken by the museum, which showcases 7,000 years of art history, to examine its own origins and address “many of the inequalities of the past.” Directors say the museum plans more research in the future.

The initiatives are being announced three months after researchers at Johns Hopkins University disclosed that its founder owned slaves in the 1840s and 1850s, contradicting beliefs that William Walters was a staunch abolitionist and prompting a reexamination of history.

The Walters reopens to the public Wednesday, March 17 after a nearly four-month hiatus to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In conjunction with the reopening, the museum has raised pay for all full-time employees to at least $15 per hour and pay for all part-time employees to at least $13 per hour.

The newly-written history of the museum is posted on its website,, and reflected in the text on new wall panels in its galleries, especially a fourth-floor installation called “Building the Collection: 19th Century European and American Art.”

“At the Walters, we must unravel the challenging facts about our founders, our history as a public institution, and our collection. We have a responsibility to share and engage with this history to help us understand together how individuals and cultural institutions can contribute to the perpetuation of racism and systems of inequity,” said Julia Marciari-Alexander, Andrea B. and John H. Laporte Director of the Walters Art Museum, in a statement.

“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,” she said.

The museum at 600 N. Charles Street contains more than 36,000 works of art from cultures around the world, dating from 5000 B. C. to the present.

According to the museum, it started as the private collection of William T. Walters (1819 to 1894) and his son Henry Walters (1848 to 1931), reflecting their “tastes and beliefs about what was culturally valuable and meaningful art.” When he died, Henry Walters left the collection, which then included 22,000 works of art and two buildings, to the city of Baltimore “for the benefit of the public.” It opened as a municipal museum in 1934.

According to the museum, “William and Henry Walters used their wealth, power, and social connections to collect art that reflected their 19th-century, Eurocentric worldview, which saw the height of human artistic production as a progression from Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome through the Italian Renaissance.”

The newly written history of the Walters includes sections on William and Henry Walters; their support for the Confederacy; the ways in which they profited from racist labor policies and practices before and after the Civil War, and the ways in which their views influenced their art-collecting. It incorporates information that is likely to change what visitors know about the founders and the works they acquired.

In the past, representatives say, the museum’s own materials focused principally on explaining the creation of the museum as an outgrowth of William and Henry Walters’ philanthropy and collecting, their connections to Baltimore, and the depth and breadth of the collection. This history has been presented in many places, from text on the website, to wall panels within the galleries, to special installations focused on the founders.

The Walters’ newly expanded history, available on the museum’s website and written by a cross-section of the Walters’ staff, now addresses three elements that have been missing from past presentations of the institution’s origins.

First and foremost, the text now examines William Walters and his support for the Confederacy in the era leading up to the Civil War—and how both William and his son Henry commemorated the Confederacy over several decades after the Civil War ended.

This support was manifested publicly in many ways, including William Walters’ commissioning in 1887 of a public monument to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Taney wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision (1857), which ruled that Black Americans, free or enslaved, could not be citizens. The statue was removed from public view in 2017.

The newly written history also directly links the Walters’ business enterprises—and personal financial success—and their dependence on the Southern economies based on slavery and its legacies, part of a nationwide structure of racism and oppression. A future phase of research, directors say, will include further investigation of the founders, their businesses, their collecting, and their role as philanthropists in Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere.

Finally, the museum’s history now addresses the nature of the “encyclopedic” museum that drove collecting and connoisseurship in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. The new text, called “About the Walters,” identifies the “biased and Eurocentric view of what does, and does not, represent human artistic achievement” that necessarily informed the Walters’ collecting—as well as subsequent generations of museum professionals and collectors.

Besides being posted on the museum’s website, the newly-written history has been brought into the museum. An installation on the fourth floor, previously known as From Rye to Raphael, has been renamed Building the Collection: 19th-century European and American Art to reflect a widened lens through which the Walters collections and history are presented.

The installation includes updated information about William and Henry Walters and new labels about how the historic collection reflects beliefs about what was considered culturally valuable and meaningful for its time. It also highlights works of art that reflect current strategies to augment the collection through acquisitions, expanding the public’s understanding of the existing collections and adding new artistic voices to the collection, especially those of artists of color.

“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 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.”

One example of the new way information is now presented is a section from the museum’s newly written history entitled “About William T. Walters, Henry Walters and the Confederacy.” It starts by stating:

In order to continue to be “for the benefit of the public” for 21st-century audiences in Baltimore and beyond, it is the responsibility of the Walters Art Museum to acknowledge its past: to convey the origins and history of the museum itself and of the collection.

As was true of many businessmen-philanthropists of their time, both William and Henry Walters participated in creating, promoting, and perpetuating oppressive social, economic, and political structures with legacies that continue to create inequity and inequality today. Their wealth came from businesses, initially in distilling and marketing liquor, and later in railroads and banking. Through these enterprises, they depended on and profited from Southern economies based in slavery and its legacies.

Elsewhere on the museum’s website, in a section about the Building the Collection installation, is a section on “William and Henry Walters and the Confederacy.” It starts similarly to the official history and then adds more detail:

During the Civil War, William T. Walters used his position and wealth to promote political and public support for the Confederacy. In August 1861, he left for Europe with his family and remained there for the duration of the war. There is little doubt that if he had remained in Baltimore he would have been arrested and imprisoned.

Both William and Henry Walters were involved in funding Confederate monuments. In 1887 William commissioned for the City of Baltimore a statue of former chief justice Roger B. Taney, who delivered the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857), which ruled that Black Americans, free or enslaved, were not and could not be citizens of the United States.

In 1909 Henry provided funds for a monument in Wilmington, N.C., to former Attorney General of the Confederate States George Davis, who had also served as legal counsel for railroads in which Henry was invested. These monuments were taken down in 2017 and 2020, respectively, amid civil protests against racism and efforts to acknowledge the pain of our national history.”

Another part of the museum’s online history, a section called “land acknowledgment,” addresses the land on which the museum is built. It states that “the Walters Art Museum exists on the unceded ancestral lands of the Susquehannock and Piscataway Nations, as well as the home territory of the Lumbee and Cherokee peoples,” and that the museum is developing an “institutional land acknowledgment statement” to that effect.

The museum’s second major effort to address “the inequalities of the past” is a series of near- and longer-term DEAI goals, developed by a Joint Staff & Board Working Group.

The effort culminated in the museum’s board of trustees adopting a set of multiyear diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion goals in December 2020. These new DEAI goals are in alignment with the museum’s 2015 strategic plan, which stated that the Walters should “situate itself more firmly in Baltimore—a diverse city that is majority African American—and the region by investing in its citizens.”

The new DEAI plan addresses five separate areas of the museum’s activities and mirrors the categories of the 2015 strategic plan: Activate the Collections; Engage through Personal Experiences; Create Innovative Partnerships; Strengthen Accountability and Sustainability; and Build a Dynamic Team.

Each section includes both a concise summary of key steps that the museum has already taken, followed by a list of priority action items, some of which may be completed quickly while others will require further research and development.

Among the action items are:

● Establishing a new vision for the Walters’ school and teacher programs, to deepen the museum’s impact in Baltimore City and develop a scalable statewide strategy to reach all of Maryland.

● Developing new models with strategic partners to promote workforce development in Baltimore and Maryland and to support ladders of opportunity to museum careers.

● Developing and sharing internally and externally a new compensation strategy that promotes pay equity.

● Underpinning all of the museum’s efforts with ongoing review of data, metrics, and results in order to promote understanding and accountability.

“Our new strategic DEAI goals are an important step in the larger process of institutional transformation and part of our active embracing of anti-racism work,” Marciari-Alexander said. “Combined with our recent announcement to raise the minimum wage for our full-time hourly workers to $15 per hour, we are confident about the steps forward we are making as we kick off 2021.”

“I am very pleased with the work of our Joint Staff & Board DEAI Working Group, supported by the input of Walters staff drawn from several group conversations,” said James H. DeGraffenreidt, Jr., chair of the Joint Staff & Board Working Group and Board DEAI Committee, in a statement.

“Through the many abhorrent events of 2020, and even more recently at the beginning of this year, the structural racism that undergirds so much of our country was revealed so clearly. That has brought a greater level of urgency and priority to our work in these areas, beginning with our honest reckoning with our past and moving to this strong set of DEAI goals for our future. We have much to accomplish, and with the support of our staff, our Trustees, and our partners across the City, I know we will achieve our goals.”

Baltimore Fishbowl owner and founder Susan G. Dunn is a member of the board of trustees of The Walters Art Museum.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.