The Walters Art Museum is among America’s most distinctive museums, forging connections between people and art from cultures around the world and spanning seven millennia. Through its collections, exhibitions, and education programs, the Walters engages the City of Baltimore, Maryland, and audiences across the globe.
Located in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, the Walters is free for all. The museum’s campus includes five historic buildings and 36,000 art objects. Moving through the museum’s galleries, visitors encounter a stunning array of objects, from 19th-century paintings of French country and city life to Ethiopian icons, richly illuminated Qur’ans and Gospel books, ancient Roman sarcophagi, and images of the Buddha.
The Walters Art Museum was established in 1934 “for the benefit of the public.” Originally called the Walters Art Gallery, the museum started when Henry Walters (1848–1931) bequeathed to the City of Baltimore an extensive art collection begun by his father, William T. Walters (1819–1894), two buildings, and an endowment. While previous descriptions of William and Henry Walters have focused on their roles as philanthropists and art collectors, the museum is now addressing and examining their support of the Confederacy and their Eurocentric collecting. In 2000, the Walters Art Gallery became the Walters Art Museum, a change that reflects the museum’s role as a major public cultural institution. The museum’s original collection and now three of the museum’s five buildings are owned by the City of Baltimore and stewarded by the Walters.
Since its founding, the Walters’ mission has been to bring art and people together and to create a place where people of every background can be moved by art. In addition to offering free admission to the museum and special exhibitions, the Walters is committed to public education, offering essential programs that help people to connect art to their lives. The Walters is also a leader in digitization, releasing high-resolution, digital images of collection objects into the public domain for any use, free of charge, on the works of art site and award-winning manuscripts website Walters Ex Libris. The Walters’ Visitor Promise aligns staff and volunteers across the museum to preserve and share the works in our care for future generations, partner with communities, and create welcoming, accessible experiences for visitors.
Today, the Walters serves Baltimore and Maryland by embracing its role as educators and storytellers, using the collection as a vehicle of knowledge and cultural expression to support learning, dialogue, and community engagement. We invite you to learn more about these efforts in the museum’s Strategic Plan as well as the Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) goals.
The Walters Art Museum is committed to making accessible the histories of its origins and the art that it stewards in order to ensure an environment of anti-racism, inclusivity, collaboration, and welcome for visitors, volunteers, and staff. The museum is now addressing other important aspects of its history, including an acknowledgment of the original stewards of the land on which the City of Baltimore, and subsequently the museum, was created; William and Henry Walters’ support of the Confederacy; and how their original collections reflect the typical Eurocentric worldview that drove collecting at the turn of the 20th century in the United States and across Europe. The museum will also continue to undertake thorough investigations of the histories of ownership of individual objects—commonly referred to as “provenance”—in its collections. The Walters is committed to making these histories accessible onsite and online.
The Walters Art Museum acknowledges the Piscataway and Susquehannock Nations that originally inhabited the land on which this museum is located. We also acknowledge tribal nations, most notably the Lumbee, who migrated here and Indigenous peoples whose ancestors are represented in the objects we steward in our collection. View the full Indigenous Land and Cultural Heritage Acknowledgment.
The Walters Art Museum collection spans seven millennia of art from cultures across the world. Much of the collection can be explored online through the Walters’ works of art site, with works made newly available on the website regularly. The museum’s staff collaborates to make the collection accessible to the public through installations, special exhibitions, publications, and programs. The Walters has the third-oldest conservation lab in the country and is world-renowned for its conservation treatment and technical research of objects, manuscripts and works of art on paper, and paintings. The Journal of the Walters Art Museum, which is published online and is available for free, provides open access to research about the collections.
The museum’s foundational art collection consisted of 22,000 objects, which was begun by William T. Walters and expanded by his son, Henry Walters, who gifted the collection to the City of Baltimore. This collection reflected William’s and Henry’s individual tastes, shaped by 19th- and early 20th-century beliefs prevalent in Europe and the United States about what made art culturally valuable and meaningful. At the time, many art collections were conceived of and advertised as treasure boxes containing the most exemplary objects of human creation—anything left out of these collections was by implication either inferior in quality or not defined as art, biases that the museum field continues to grapple with today. Henry built upon his father’s collection of European sculpture and Asian decorative arts, acquiring archaeological works from the ancient Mediterranean world—Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome—followed by medieval European and Islamic art and manuscripts, and European paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance through the 19th century. At the end of his life, Henry added a group of Russian objects, including two Fabergé eggs, that made him one of the first major American collectors of Russian art.
Since the Walters opened in 1934, the museum has expanded both its architectural footprint and the breadth and depth of its collection. Through purchases and the generosity of donors, the collection has grown from 22,000 objects to now more than 36,000, and its scope has expanded across time, geography, and culture. As a result, the museum has in many ways become a “collection of collections,” bringing together groups of objects that were originally assembled by individual collectors according to their personal tastes. Substantial additions include Ethiopian art and manuscripts; South and Southeast Asian sculptures, paintings, and accordion books; contemporary Japanese ceramics; and art of the ancient Americas. Walters curators continue to acquire objects that bridge the collection areas, create connections between the past and present, and allow the museum to introduce new voices and tell new stories.
For much of its history, the Walters has described its collections as “encyclopedic.” Despite the range of cultures represented in the collection, the Walters now recognizes that the “encyclopedic” approach is both impossible in practice and inherently flawed in concept, reflecting a biased and Eurocentric view of what does, and does not, represent human artistic achievement. In this shift, the Walters embraces being what we see as the 21st-century museum—a living, evolving civic institution that creates space for dialogue, reflection, and continued artistic creation. We are committed to working in partnership with our local arts communities to examine our past, define our present, and shape our future.
The son of a Philadelphia banker, William Thompson Walters (1819‒1894), was born in the town of Liverpool in central Pennsylvania. William was educated to be a civil engineer and managed an operation smelting iron in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, and moved to Baltimore for business reasons in 1841. There, William became involved in multiple industries and founded William T. Walters & Co., a liquor wholesale firm, and the Atlantic Coast Line, a railroad company. Throughout his life he was deeply invested in the transportation industry, presiding over companies of and interests in steamers and railroads in the southern United States. Having settled in Baltimore, he purchased a home at 5 West Mount Vernon Place in 1857. Later, in the 1870s, William began the practice of opening his house to visitors to see his growing art collection, charging an admission fee the proceeds of which were to benefit the Association for the Improvement in the Condition of the Poor. As his collecting practices continued and his art collection outgrew the house, he acquired an adjacent property and added a picture gallery, which opened in 1884. When William Walters died in 1894, he bequeathed his collection to his son, Henry Walters.
Henry Walters (1848‒1931) followed in his father’s footsteps and was a businessman and art collector. He graduated from Georgetown College in Washington, DC, in 1869 and was enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University between 1869 and 1872. In 1889, he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, to be general manager of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Following his father’s death in 1894, he became president of the railroad and established a residence in New York City, where he moved in elite circles and was active in the art world. To continue building his art collection, Henry spent his time traveling, meeting with dealers, and attending world’s fairs.
In September 1900, Henry bought the three houses adjoining a property in Baltimore that his father William had owned in order to house and display the collection. Henry transformed the properties into a museum building, modeled after an Italian palace, or “palazzo,” which opened to visitors in 1909. He bequeathed this building, its contents, and an endowment to the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore upon his death in 1931. The Walters Art Gallery opened as a public institution on November 3, 1934.
While previous descriptions of William and Henry Walters have focused on their roles as art collectors and philanthropists, the museum is actively conducting research to have a broader understanding of their biographies, including, but not limited to, William and Henry Walters’s support of the Confederacy.
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.
During the Civil War, William T. Walters used his position and wealth to promote public opposition to the Union. In April 1861, he helped to fund the firing of a salute, an event that honored the surrender of Fort Sumter (Charleston, South Carolina) to Confederate forces following the first battle of the war. He played a role in organizing a protest against Union troops being transported through Baltimore by way of railroads in which he had a stake. Known as the the Pratt Street Riot, it resulted in the first deaths by hostile action in the Civil War. With other members of his social circle, he used his influence to push for the development of a secessionist party ticket to represent Baltimore in the state legislature.
In August 1861, William T. Walters left for Europe with his family; the following month, a number of the secessionist associates with whom he had campaigned (Severn Teackle Wallis, William Wilkins Glenn, and Dr. John Hanson Thomas, the original owner of the house at 1 West Mount Vernon Place) were arrested and imprisoned by the Union government. There is little doubt that if Walters had remained in Baltimore, he also would have been arrested and imprisoned. Prior to his return to Baltimore in 1865, he denied involvement in secessionist activities but also refused to take the oath of allegiance, which required sworn loyalty to the Union and affirmation of no previous disloyalty.
Walters remained in Europe for the duration of the war. During his stay he purchased some of the French paintings, drawings, and sculptures that are now in the collection of the museum. In 1884, he gave to the City of Baltimore five works by the French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye to decorate the public square in front of his home at 5 West Mount Vernon Place. These were unveiled in early 1886. In 1887, Walters again commissioned a statue for the city: a portrait of Roger B. Taney, the chief justice of the Supreme Court who delivered the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision (1857), which ruled that Black Americans, free or enslaved, were not and could not be citizens of the United States. The statue—which was a replica of the monument erected in front of the State House in Annapolis in 1872—remained on its plinth in Mount Vernon Place from its installation in 1887 until it was removed by the City of Baltimore in 2017 along with three other Confederate monuments in Baltimore.
William Walters’ only son, Henry, was also active in commemorating the Confederacy. In 1909, he provided funds to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for the erection of a monument in Wilmington, North Carolina, representing George Davis, who had served as attorney general of the Confederate States and acted as legal counsel for the railroads with which Henry Walters was invested. This monument was removed on June 25, 2020, amid protests against racism. The Walters Art Museum continues to research Henry Walters’ financial and political activities—with particular focus on his activities in Wilmington, North Carolina, and his connections with the Cape Fear Club and the Club’s involvement in the Wilmington Insurrection of November 1898.
The Walters is continuing to research the social, political, and economic histories of William and Henry Walters and of the museum itself—as well as exploring how museums such as the Walters participate in systems of power and oppression—in order to understand their full impact and legacy.
Between North and South: A Maryland Journalist Views the Civil War: The Narrative of William Wilkins Glenn 1861‒1869. Rutherford [NJ]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; Associated University Presses, 1976, 27, 31, 188.
William R. Johnston, William and Henry Walters, the Reticent Collectors. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, 22‒23, 43, 50, 102, 221, 242n5.
Corey M. Brooks, “Sculpting Memories of the Slavery Conflict: Commemorating Roger Taney in Washington, D.C., Annapolis, and Baltimore, 1864‒1887” in Maryland Historical Magazine 112, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2017): 22‒24.
“A Statue of Taney in Baltimore,” The Sun, October 17, 1887.
“Rinehart’s Statue of Chief Justice Taney: To the Public,” The Sun, November 10, 1887.
“The Taney Statue: Unveiling of a Magnificent Bronze in Mount Vernon Place,” The Sun, November 14, 1887.
Henry Walters to James Sprunt, February 15, 1909, and March 31, 1909, Alexander Sprunt and Son Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
This page was last updated February, 2022.