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Amy Mannarino
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10-Year-Loan Adds to Breadth of Museum’s Collection

Stunning works from ancient American cultures, including Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Aztec, and Inca, on view

Baltimore, Maryland–On September 22, Art of the Ancient Americas, a 10-year loan to the Walters Art Museum, goes on view. The artworks for the exhibition, loaned by the directors of the Austen-Stokes Ancient Americas Foundation, are highlights of the foundation’s collection and include more than 120 objects–from tiny Valdivia ceramic figures more than 4,000 years old to 16th-century Aztec and Inca sculpture. Many of these objects will be on public view for the first time, giving visitors the opportunity to explore art that in many ways remains a mystery to scholars. The most ancient of these cultures vanished well before Europeans ventured into the New World; only their art remains to suggest who they were and how they saw the world.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to present a first-rate collection,” said Walters Director Gary Vikan. “While Henry Walters did have the foresight to collect art of the ancient Americas, he did not focus on it as he did with ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek art.  With this generous loan from the Austen-Stokes Foundation, we broaden our scope on 55 centuries of art and add to our story of ancient civilizations.”

“This collection ranks as one of the most important of its kind,” said visiting assistant curator Matthew H. Robb. “Few museums have the chance to display such a wide range of
materials and cultures. Fewer still have the chance to display objects of such consistently high quality.”

All of the major civilizations of Mesoamerica are featured, including Olmec, Maya, and Teotihuacan, among others. The exhibition focuses on small ceramic sculpture from
these cultures—enigmatic figures and animals that probably served a ritual function. These pieces are complemented by larger ceramic sculptures from West Mexico, intricate gold objects from Colombia, elegant ceramics from Ecuador, and works from the Caribbean and Alaska. The exhibition is also enhanced by pieces from the Walters’ own permanent collection, as well as additional loans from George and Julianne Alderman, longtime supporters of the museum.

The Austen-Stokes loan allows the Walters to add its name to a short list of distinguished museums that display significant collections of ancient American art, including Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Exhibition
The works in the installation span from 2500 B.C. to A.D. 1520 and from Mexico through Central America and into South America. The show is arranged by culture and in chronological order, highlighting for visitors just how old these civilizations are. Scholars are not certain of the meaning of many of these ancient pieces, which adds to their allure. “There is still so much we don’t know about these cultures; a new discovery can fundamentally change our understanding of a culture or particular site,” said Robb.

However, the artworks appear to revolve around a core set of themes, including agricultural fertility, the role of the ruler in forging a bond between the natural and supernatural realms, and the practice of shamanism, which included the ritual of uniting with an animal spirit. The earliest objects in the exhibition date from 2300–2000 B.C.; they are three ceramic figures from the Valdivia culture, which existed in what is today Ecuador. Scholars believe these pieces were part of a fertility ritual, however, the Valdivia civilization was one of the oldest cultures in the New World, and very little is known about its people.

One culture represented heavily is the Olmec, which flourished from 1200 B.C. to A.D. 600 in present-day Tabasco and Veracruz. Its art features recurring motifs, such as the jaguar, the great feline predator of the rain forest with whom rulers eagerly associated themselves. Objects in the exhibition include a Jaguar Mask Pendant, a Kneeling Jaguar Figure, and a Carved Celt. All of these greenstone pieces date from 900–600 B.C. of the cultures represented here, the most familiar may be the Maya, which had its foundations in the lowlands of Guatemala around 2600 B.C. By A.D. 250, Maya rulers were constructing large pyramids in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize, and western Honduras.

“In terms of art, the Maya have always been the most approachable, the most human in scale, and naturalistic” said Robb.  Among other pieces, the exhibition will feature a beautiful stucco Head in Profile and a dancing figure from the necropolis of Jaina, both dating from A.D. 600–900.  Along with their art, the Maya were noted for the development of astronomy, calendars, and hieroglyphic writing.

In contrast to the more accessible Maya is the Teotihuacan culture. With its massive pyramids and countless apartment compounds, this ancient city was one of the most densely populated in the world in the early centuries A.D. The exhibition features two famous Teotihuacan masks, objects regarded as some of the most mysterious from the ancient Americas. It is believed that they were attached to mummies on the city’s Street of the Dead. 

In conjunction with the exhibition, an on-line catalog will be accessible through the Walters’ website, containing images of the objects and a brief entry on each. Visit the museum’s website at

Public Programs
The museum will offer an Art of the Ancient Americas mini-course, surveying the art and culture of the region, on October 19, 2002.

Hours and Admission
The Walters is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, and until 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month. Admission to Art of the Ancient Americas is included in the general admission price to the museum. Adults are $8, senior citizens are $6, and young adults and college students (18–25) are $5. Admission is free for Walters’ members and children 17 and under. Admission is free on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and all day on the first Thursday of the month.

The Walters Art Museum
The Walters Art Museum is located in Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon Cultural District at North Charles and Centre Streets.  Its permanent collection includes ancient art, medieval art and manuscripts, decorative objects, Asian art, and Old Master and 19th-century paintings. The most modern of the Walters’ three museum buildings recently underwent a major renovation, reopening in October 2001.