January 9, 2012

Media Contact:
The Walters Art Museum
410-547-9000, ext. 277
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Baltimore—The Walters Art Museum presents Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection Gift an exhibition of 135 artworks from cultures that rose and fell in Mexico, Central America and Andean South America from 1200 B.C.–A.D. 1530. Drawn from the collection of John Bourne recently gifted to the Walters, this exhibition, on view February 12–May 20, 2012, expresses each culture’s distinctive aesthetics, worldview and spiritual ideologies.

Modern historians group the many ancient societies south of the United States into three great traditions based on ancient geo-politics and patterns of shared cultural features: Mesoamerica, Central America and Andean South America. The exhibition features artworks as illustrations of the societies’ fundamental principles such as the shamanic foundation of rulership in Mesoamerica, Costa Rica and Panama, and the cosmic principles embodied by gold and silver in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Artists expressed each society’s uniqueness in novel forms of monumental and portable art of human figures, spiritual beings and deities, and companions of daily life such as dogs, made from stone, clay, precious metals and fibers. 

Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas touches on the performative nature of politics and religion—performance being a key mechanism for strengthening bonds of community and religious belief. The exhibition features the imaginative musical instruments used during these events and emotive portrayals of performers—from kings to commoners.

“Before mass communication such as television, the internet or smart phones, performance was a vital public device for real-time communication of a culture’s social, political and ideological beliefs,” said Curatorial Consultant for Art of the Ancient Americas Dorie Reents-Budet. “In the ancient Americas, as elsewhere in world history, performance communicates group identity and reinforces social hierarchy, political power and other key characteristics of a society.

This exhibition features selections from collector John Bourne, who was among the initial explorers to probe deep into the hilly jungles of southern Mexico. Traveling with adventurer Carlos (Herman Charles) Frey and photographer Giles Healy, they were among the first Westerners to visit Bonampak, the now famous Maya site celebrated for its three-roomed royal building whose interior walls are covered with murals recording a battle and public rituals concerning royal political history at the site during the eighth century. Bourne became enamored of the creative expressiveness of the Maya—and of all peoples of the ancient Americas—perceiving the works as equal to any artistic tradition in the world. 

“Without question, this gift from John Bourne marks a great milestone in the Walters’ 70-year history,” said Director Gary Vikan. “In the decades to come, the museum will be at the national forefront in exploring and sharing with the public the rich cultural history of the great ancient civilizations of the Western Hemisphere.”

This exhibition has been made possible through the generous contributions of John Bourne, the Women’s Committee of the Walters Art Museum, the Selz Foundation and the Ziff Family, through its endowed exhibition fund for the arts of the ancient Americas.


Highlighted artworks include:

  • Mother and Child
    (100 B.C.–A.D. 200) These cream-slipped figures were created during the culmination of the shaft tomb tradition in West Mexico, when tombs were filled with figural sculptures and pottery vessels. This woman proudly supports her son standing upon her lap, the sculpture being an informal yet stately expression of the procreative power of women and their lifelong calling as nurturers.
  • Human Effigy Pendant
    (A.D. 400–1500) The medium of choice after A.D. 500, this cast-gold alloy piece portrays a dancing musician, his performance indicated by his bent knees. This finely cast pendant may render a shaman’s spiritual transformation, signified by the serpents emanating from the top of his head.
  • Llama Effigy
    (A.D. 1000–1470) Well-adapted to the extremes of the Andean environment, the llama was at the heart of every Andean home, providing fine wool for warm clothing and being the only beast of burden in the Andes. This engaging earthenware sculpture captures the young animal’s natural inquisitiveness, its white and black face coloration following the Andean principle of duality and balance.



The exhibition will travel to the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History in New Mexico June 10–August 26, 2012 and to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville March 3–June 23, 2013.


An illustrated catalogue of the collection, including detailed entries on objects in the exhibition, as well as a checklist of non-exhibited objects in the Bourne Collection gift, accompanies the exhibition. Written by Reents-Budet, the publication includes technical notes on many of the objects as well as an essay by Walters Senior Objects Conservator Julie Lauffenburger on the authentication of art of the ancient Americas. The publication also profits from contributions by Walters Assistant Conservator for the Ancient Americas exhibition Jessica Arista, Walters Conservation Scientist Glenn Gates and Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University and Maya epigrapher Marc Zender. Published in association with D Giles Limited, London, the hard cover edition is $65; the soft cover is $39.95.


Museum hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas is a special ticketed exhibition. General admission to the Walters’ permanent collection is free.

Special Exhibition Admission Prices:

$10 Adults
$8 Seniors
$6 Students/young adults (18–25)
17 and under FREE
Members FREE

The Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum is located in downtown Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon Cultural District at North Charles and Centre streets and is one of only a few museums worldwide to present a comprehensive history of art from the third millennium B.C. to the early 20th century. Collection highlights include Egyptian mummies, Renaissance suits of armor, Fabergé eggs, Art Nouveau jewelry and old master paintings. Among its thousands of treasures, the Walters holds the finest collection of ivories, jewelry, enamels and bronzes in America and a spectacular reserve of illuminated manuscripts and rare books. The Walters’ Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Byzantine, Ethiopian and western medieval art collections are among the best in the nation, as are the museum’s holdings of Renaissance and Asian art. Every major trend in French painting during the 19th century is represented by one or more works in the Walters’ collection.

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