The Creative Power of Women

In this episode of Free Admissions, we celebrate Women’s History Month. Discover the history of nearly 75 years of women leadership in the Walters Conservation Department from its director, Julie Lauffenburger. Learn about New on the Bookshelf: The Creative Power of Women from the exhibition’s curator, Lynley Anne Herbert.

Episode Segments

Overview of New on the Bookshelf: The Creative Power of Women, with Lynley Herbert, Robert and Nancy Hall, curator of rare books and manuscripts
Interview with Julie Lauffenberger, Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director of Conservation, Collections, and Technical Research
Exhibition Title Testing with Roslyn Esperon, Manager of Evaluations and Audience Impact

[00:00:00] Karena Ingram: Welcome to the Walters Art Museum Podcast where we bring art and people of every background together to inspire creativity, curiosity, and connection. I’m your host, Karena Ingram, and in honor of Women’s History Month, this episode celebrates women in art and leadership. We’ll highlight our exhibition, New on the Bookshelf: The Creative Power of Women, with its curator, Lynley Herbert, then speak with Julie Lauffenberger, the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director of Conservation, Collections, and Technical Research, about 75 years of women leadership in the Walters Art Museum Conservation Department.

To round things out, Roslyn Esperon, our Manager of Evaluations and Audience Impact, will walk us through the wonderful world of museum metrics and how we best use this data. Stick around, there’s more art in connection to come.

[00:00:45] Lynley Herbert: I’m Dr. Lynley Herbert, I’m the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts here at the Walters Art Museum, and today I’m going to tell you a little bit about our current book exhibition, New on the Bookshelf: The Creative Power of Women. The works on view were all acquired in recent years as part of a collecting initiative to celebrate and amplify the contributions of women.

When I became curator over a decade ago, it was possible to count the number of works by women in the Walters Book Collection on one hand, and the voices and stories of women makers have been largely absent from the museum overall. So, this felt like an important area for growth, since the strategic addition of new works can really help shift a narrative.

This exhibition includes 10 recently acquired works that allow us to look at women as creators across a variety of time periods, cultures, and media. And it’s really exciting to finally get a chance to share these new stories with our visitors. I think as a group, they really reveal how creating with ink, paint, paper, and parchment can be an empowering and even at times rebellious act.

One thread that’s really woven through all of these stories is a sense of these women’s indomitable spirits, each in their own way turning to the book arts as a means to take some kind of control over their lives when they had limited power. A wonderful example of this is the very first book I acquired, The Clothilde Missal.

It’s a beautifully illuminated manuscript created in 1906, by a young woman named Clothilde Coulaux. She lived in German-occupied France and used her personal prayer book as a way to privately resist the German occupation. In her art, we find German eagles hovering ominously over her French text, while Joan of Arc, who had come to symbolize the French resistance against the German occupation, arrives triumphantly in Clothilde’s hometown.

What I love the most is that on the page across from Joan of Arc, another woman in armor, which I think likely represents Clothilde herself, joins the fight, wielding her book in place of a sword.

Another work in the exhibition is by one of Clothilde’s contemporaries, Frances MacDonald. Frances and her sister, Margaret, were important Scottish artists who collaborated with the renowned architects and their future husbands, Herbert McNair and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

In 1896, the sisters created a Christmas manuscript, and the final version is preserved today in Scotland and is made of painted pages with a hammered copper binding. But they also created a second version out of fragile cloth, which has been recently gifted to the Walters.

On the cover, Frances painted the Virgin Mary, but she painted her with a sensuality that would have been really shocking at the time, and it’s a great example of the way the MacDonald sisters celebrated the female form and the power of women. But that boldness also challenged, and even threatened the norms of their time. And within a decade, Frances’s career faded. When she died, her husband burned her art. So, this work at the Walters is a rare survival.

Another rare and fragile work in the exhibition is a small, but powerful manuscript from 1803. It was created by a young Flemish girl of about 12 years old, and she was deaf, and since she couldn’t speak during confession, she created a book of 35 drawings that represented potential sins, and she could show the priest which ones she needed to confess to. The sins were charmingly drawn and incredibly relatable, like gossiping, feeling lazy, or even expressing some preteen angst like wishing her parents were dead.

Her book is one of only 13 manuscripts like this known worldwide, and the Walters now has a set. We bought a boy’s version in 2023. And together, these books are the only artworks in the collection that were created from the perspectives of Deaf individuals.

Other manuscripts in the exhibition also show how women could actively take charge of their physical and spiritual well-being. There are three healing scrolls commissioned by women in 19th-century Ethiopia, and each of them would have been deeply involved in their scrolls creation from start to finish. And her scroll would have been cut to the exact length of her body so that she could literally be protected from head to toe.

It was then inscribed with her name, as well as prayers that could protect her from evil, give her luck and love, help with headaches, or help her overcome infertility. And these were often rolled up and put into a leather case so she could wear it to keep its healing and protective power with her at all times.

These women didn’t write their own scrolls, nor did they need to, but in some situations the very act of writing was more powerful than the words themselves. The exhibition includes a letter written in 1861 by a woman named Sybby Grant. And in her letter, she writes proudly about her impressive culinary skills.

Her words come across as really warm and conversational, but that disguises the reality that Sybby was the enslaved cook of the Thomas family, who used to live in one West Mount Vernon place, which is now part of the Walters Art Museum. Dr. Thomas was a Confederate sympathizer and was imprisoned at Fort McHenry, and it is in this complicated and uncertain atmosphere that Sybby wrote her letter, which is believed to have accompanied a pot of turtle soup that she describes cooking for him in the letter which was sent to him in prison.

So, in this case, Sybby’s very act of writing is incredibly powerful. Letters written by enslaved people are extremely rare, given that the majority were forbidden from learning to read or write. So, including her in the company of the other remarkable women in this exhibition allows her story to exist outside of her enslavement, to see her as a woman, as a writer, and as a chef who took pride in her exceptional culinary arts.

There are many ways that putting words on paper can be an empowering act, and the printing press is another path to expression and autonomy. I was surprised to discover that among the 3,500 rare books collected by Henry Walters, not a single one was printed by a woman’s hands. But there were actually many women printing by the 16th century, and they were known as the widow printers because they could take over their husbands’ businesses when they died.

An exceptional example of this was Paula de Benavides, whose husband, Bernardo Calderón, started a printing press in Mexico City in 1631. When he died in 1640, Paula took on the business and ran one of the most prominent presses in Mexico for the next 44 years, while raising six children. And Paula laid the foundation for a family legacy that spans seven generations, over 200 years.

And it was led largely by strong and talented women. And this seemed like a fantastic and important story to be able to tell at the Walters, so we’ve acquired books by three generations of women in the family. family, starting with Paula herself. They represent part of a larger strategy to acquire publications by every major printer in the Calderón-Benavides family, and the exhibition includes a family tree that maps out this strategy.

Ultimately, these books will allow us to explore multi-generational printing while also building our first group of Spanish colonial books and introducing the stories of many accomplished women. So, hope you’re as excited as I am about the possibilities these acquisitions bring to the collection and that these women’s stories and voices have a lasting impact on the collection.

[00:07:28] Karena Ingram: Thanks so much again, Lynley Herbert, Robert and Nancy Hall, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts for walking us through New on the Bookshelf: The Creative Power of Women, an installation that is generously made possible by supporters of the Walters Art Museum.

All right, we can’t talk about Women’s History Month and the Creative Power of Women without noting the museum is approaching a major milestone: nearly 75 years of women leadership in the Walters Art Museum Conservation Department. I’m so excited to speak with Julie Lauffenberger, the Dorothy Wagner Wallace Director of Conservation Collections and Technical Research to learn more about the history of the Walters Conservation Lab, Julie’s role, and her incredible team.

Julie, welcome to the podcast.

[00:08:12] Julie Lauffenberger: Thank you, Karena. Great to be here!

[00:08:14] Karena Ingram: I’m happy to be talking with you about this incredible milestone.

[00:08:17] Julie Lauffenberger: It is a big one.

[00:08:18] Karena Ingram: And the Conservation Department, but could you tell our listeners a little bit more about how long you’ve been at the Walters, your role, and your background in conservation?

[00:08:27] Julie Lauffenberger: Sure, sure, sure. I started at the Walters as a grad student. So really, the Walters is known for its commitment to training of conservators, and so really I started 36 years ago. It’s really hard to imagine that.

[00:08:40] Karena Ingram: It’s incredible!

[00:08:40] Julie Lauffenberger: It is a long, long time, but I am so proud of that. So I started as an intern, then went to the Smithsonian for some additional training, came back, and eventually there was a job opportunity.

So, I’ve been on staff for about 33 years, so it’s been a great- I made my career here and that’s rare these days. That’s rare. So, it’s been an amazing opportunity. And I am an objects conservator by training. I trained at one of the three conservation schools in the country. Then it was in Cooperstown, New York, little town, one stoplight, you know, I had to walk by a farm every day to get to the program. So, you really were immersed in what you were doing ’cause there was not a lot of else going on, but from the start, I was interested in a huge diversity of things. You would call me a generalist. I did projects on whale baleen and how it was used in Japanese armor. I did projects on 10th-century ceramic tiles from Byzantine Turkey.

Then moved on to, you know, my love is materials from the ancient Americas, and now really most recently colonial Americas. So, the Walters collection allows you to sort of move through all of those things. And I, you know, I started as an objects conservator, so I was in the lab, and then slowly moved, you know, working with the great mentors that I had.

I became assistant director to the Conservation Department itself. And then I think it was in 2016 when my predecessor retired after 47 years, I then moved into director of conservation and technical research.

And then what changed most recently? So that was an amazing group of 10 conservators, that’s what I knew best. But certainly, there was a shift from objects to people. You know, objects don’t talk back, people talk, we talk together, but you know, it was a very different thing. And then most recently, really just before COVID hit at the end of 2019, our department expanded at the museum and became Conservation, Collections, and Technical Research.

So, now I lead that great team, which is really involves all of the disparate groups that have their hands on collections and collection stewardship and making installations happen.

[00:10:43] Karena Ingram: Yeah, that’s an incredible like-

[00:10:46] Julie Lauffenberger: A lot, right? Sorry!

[00:10:48] Karena Ingram: No, it’s great! It’s aspirational, honestly. And to be a woman leader in that position and see this kind of transition from you interning here to leading such an incredible team that I feel like- our visitors get to see the art in person, but they don’t get to see everything that makes the art possible to be on view.

[00:11:08] Julie Lauffenberger: Right. Right.

[00:11:09] Karena Ingram: And so, I just want to know your thoughts and hearing. 75 years of women leadership. What initial thoughts or emotions kind of come to mind thinking of your tenure here?

[00:11:20] Julie Lauffenberger: Yeah. I have an enormous sense of pride, certainly. And I feel an enormous responsibility, right? I come on sort of the heels of really two women. I mean, in that 75 years, I am the third sort of female Director of Conservation. Now, Elisabeth Packard, actually started at the institution in 1936. So very early on, she was assistant to the director who was-David Rosen was a man. He was only here six months at a time, but Elizabeth was here full time. And I can’t imagine what it was like, actually, as a woman in the 30s, pre-war, working in sort of, in a scientific- because it really was conservation and technical research from the start, which distinguished us.

So, there is a history of, and I think Elisabeth, then Terry Drayman-Weisser, really set the stage for both excellence in everything you do, pioneering work, and then training mentorship, and outreach, like, it’s sort of four pillars. And that foundation, I feel, you know, I inherited, I believe in, and I do feel that sort of responsibility to, you know, continue and amplify and sort of, how does that change in our 21st century museum? What does that look like?

[00:12:30] Karena Ingram: And in that time, you talk about the amount of pride that you feel holding this title now. Is there a way that being a woman in this position impacts your work in a particular kind of aspect that people might not think about?

[00:12:46] Julie Lauffenberger: Yeah, I mean I, it’s such an interesting thing because part of it I don’t know if it’s me as a person, right? Or me as a woman? And I think certainly previous generations really had so much to so much to sort of overcome I think in terms of their, you know, perception as a woman.

[00:13:00] Karena Ingram: Right.

[00:13:01] Julie Lauffenberger: But I do feel that it’s important to me to be a good communicator and an involved leader. And by doing that, at the same time bringing a balanced approach to people’s work, and building a sense of community is, I feel, the way to, you know, get people to feel valued in their work and really to get the most out of people in their work. So, I guess that’s how I see it. It’s a lot of communication, like communication is key. And maybe I see that in my role as a woman, you know, being woman leader that that is a key thing.

[00:13:34] Karena Ingram: It’s like a level of compassion that you have because these are other humans that we’re working with and to cultivate an environment where people feel like they can work their best, I think is some of the most impressive thing that I have seen from women in leadership that kind of has personally inspired me. And with the incredible teams that you do oversee, is there, you know, a particular project or like large work that you’re proud of the most, or something that comes first to mind when you think about the incredible work that these people are doing?

[00:14:06] Julie Lauffenberger: Yeah. I mean, it’s, you know, there’s always the single object, the amazing transformations that happen, but that’s a single person, so I don’t want to say that. I have to say, when we opened Across Asia, which is our most recent installation, permanent installation of our arts of the Asian continent this past spring, it felt honestly like a small miracle that it happened. And I was so proud. It is the first, it was, such a major undertaking of over 500 objects.

We had a lot of new staff on board, a new designer, new folks out at the wood shop, you know, and just the fact that everybody came together in such a complicated installation. I felt like we’ve built an amazing team, and the fact that we pulled that off seamlessly, and as you know, and the product is so amazing, and just to see their pride in what they brought to the project, you know, it was really gratifying.

[00:14:57] Karena Ingram: Yeah, which if you have not seen Across Asia: Arts of Asia in the Islamic World, please visit us on our Level Four galleries, it is stunning. One of the first things I saw when starting here at the Walters myself. Could you speak a little bit on why it is important to have women in art conservation?

[00:15:15] Julie Lauffenberger: Yeah, I think what’s interesting, and I just want to say that there are actually a lot of women in art conservation. So, when you know, you go to graduate school, which really started in the seventies, so the field professionalized in the seventies. And there, you know, we’re a number of women and more so now.

There are a fair number of women, but I think disproportionately, there were not as many women in leadership, given the number of women. So, that is just something that I wanted to mention. But really what I feel is most important is that we bring the fullest spectrum of representation to the field of conservation, and I think that’s what the field is really working on now.

We work on objects from across so many cultures that we want. You know, I think our focus really should be to diversify who conservators are and bring in as many groups. And that really speaks to getting the word out, right? And that comes just- what is important to us in terms of our public facing conservation window, which we’ve had in play for about 11 years and really just letting people know that this is something you can do, right? This is a career, and this is some of the work that happens behind the scenes.

[00:16:17] Karena Ingram: I’m happy that you did mention the Conservation Window, which a lot of people can go visit and see conservators working actively, Friday and Saturdays from 12:30 to 4 p.m. at the museum. Could you give a little bit of like the background and types of things that people could see in the window?

[00:16:33] Julie Lauffenberger: Yeah. We did start it, like I said, about 11 years ago, and I think, you know, there was a trend in conservation wanting to be a little bit more present in gallery spaces. I think the museum is actually, the Walters is unique in that we have done that through exhibitions and other ways since the beginning of the institution, so that’s remarkable.

But there was actually a call from, I think, one of our trustees and our director at the time who really wanted to give us more real estate; that’s unusual. That’s unusual, but we were game for that. So, Terry Drayman-Weisser, who was director really was in support of it. We designed; we were going-it was like a minor renovation. We took away a small space, which is adjacent to the gallery, and committed to being in that space two days a week. And what is slightly different about ours is that the window is open, right? So, the window’s open, conservators in there are not meant to be getting work done. They are truly there to talk with the public, learn from the public, engage with the public, answer questions, so it’s not a fishbowl, which is important.

One of the objects that’s in there right now is this incredible deconstruction of an Islamic ceramic that one of our conservators is doing. Taking apart something that was restored a hundred years ago, came to us as one piece, but now it, you know, it’s falling apart after a hundred years of being restored.

And so, it’s being taken down bit by bit. So, it’s this gorgeous blue, turquoise blue ceramic that is just sort of, they’re organizing into sort of a puzzle sort of setup so you can see what’s going on. You can also find conservators cleaning a painting, right? Paintings are very captivating, I think, to people, which it’s always exciting in that you see the paintings conservators at work.

But we also have our scientist out there who is sharing, you know, how we understand materials and techniques. So, sometimes it’s really more of a show and tell. Yeah, you just never know.

[00:18:17] Karena Ingram: It’s an exciting time every time that I’ve popped my head into the window.

[00:18:20] Julie Lauffenberger: I know we get a lot of staff visitors. Yeah, we’re happy about that.

[00:18:23] Karena Ingram: No, it’s really thrilling to see how passionately they talk about their work as well.

[00:18:28] Julie Lauffenberger: Yes, that is key.

[00:18:29] Karena Ingram: Yeah. Of course. You know, having representation in a leadership position, having the opportunity to speak one-on-one with conservators. What would you say to women or femme-presenting people in STEM, or STEAM, which I am a big proponent of STEAM,

[00:18:45] Julie Lauffenberger: Right. Exactly.

[00:18:46] Karena Ingram: that are interested in pursuing a career in conservation?

[00:18:49] Julie Lauffenberger: Right. I mean, I would really say if, you know, if you are passionate, there is a place for you, right? There’s a place for you. It is rewarding and fulfilling work, and its important work, right? So, the tangible cultural heritage that we have in this museum is sometimes, or often, the only evidence of some cultures.

And so, it is truly important that we preserve it. And there’s still a lot to do, right? There are new technologies coming all the time, quicker than conservation can sort of keep up, but it’s out there. I mean, they just recently imaged some, scrolls from Herculaneum that we thought were indecipherable, but now we can image those. So, you just never know what’s out there. There’s lots of discoveries to be made. Come find us, talk about it, hear about it.

[00:19:33] Karena Ingram: Beautiful. Well, I’ve been finishing off our interviews with this one question. It’s a hard question, probably the hardest one I’ve pitched to you today, but what is your favorite artwork in the museum that’s currently on view right now?

[00:19:46] Julie Lauffenberger: I’m glad you said, “currently on view.” That makes it a little easier, [laughter] but you might catch me a different day. But today, I have to really say it’s this sculpture, which is a 350-year or so old sculpture, made of ivory, towers about four foot high, and it is an image of St. Michael, the Archangel, for many reasons.

First of all, the material, it’s a difficult material: ivory. I mean, it’s, we’ve got a lot of strong feelings about that, and it demonstrates how art can make you think, right? The plight of the elephant, and yet this was made 350 years ago, so how do we have that conversation together? It’s also a single object that defies being a sort of pigeonholed into, you know, it’s Roman 2nd century AD or it’s, you know, high Renaissance; this is an object that has origins, material wise and technique, in four different continents. All of our objects have a lot of stories to tell. This one in particular, I think, has so many and, you know, it’s not giving up its secrets quickly, so I think we’ll, we’ll be learning for years about it.

[00:20:42] Karena Ingram: Thank you so much, Julie. It was a pleasure talking to you, learning more about the work that you do. You are truly connecting art history and our community here at the Walter, so we thank you for that.

[00:20:52] Julie Lauffenberger: Thanks, Karena. It’s been a pleasure.

[00:20:57] Karena Ingram: Thank you so much again to Julie for speaking with me! You can visit our Conservation Window every Friday and Saturday from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Level 4 of the museum.

When you think of museums, of course one of the big things that come to mind is metrics, right? Surveys, statistics, and the like. No? Well, if not, then let Roslyn Esperon, our Manager of Evaluations and Audience Impact, change your mind and walk you through how the Walters Art Museum uses metrics to shape our exhibitions, like New on the Bookshelf: The Creative Power of Women.

[00:21:31] Roslyn Esperon, Manager of Evaluations and Audience Impact: Hi, I’m Roslyn Esperon, the manager of Evaluation and Audience Impact here at the Walters. I have a really exciting job. I get to learn more about our visitors and their experiences at the museum through conducting surveys, interviews, focus groups, and other forms of research.

One of the fun projects I got to do last year was a title testing survey for the manuscript exhibition that our curator, Lynley Herbert, just shared about. In this project, we wanted to test out different possible titles for the show to find out what resonated most with our audience. We also needed a title that would work with two different rotations of manuscripts, one related to the impact women have made in book arts, and another elevating stories of underrepresented cultures and makers.

We invited in-person visitors and our social media followers to take a look at nearly a dozen possible titles. We wanted to know which titles, at first glance, sparked the most overall interest. Which titles would bring you in? At the Walters, our frontrunner was “Building the Bookshelf,” but we tested ones that were fun and silly, like, “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Bookshelf!” or “Hot off the Press.” We also tested ones that were more academic like “Transforming the Narrative Through Strategic Book Acquisition.” Some of the titles we tested were ones that we didn’t think we would go with, but we wanted to understand whether our current and potential visitors felt the same way. What did you think?

We also showed respondents a description of the exhibition. For half of the folks taking the survey, that description included a sentence about the impact women have made in book arts. For the other half, it included a sentence about elevating stories of underrepresented cultures and makers.

Visitors could choose up to three favorite titles, and we wanted to know if there was one title that worked for both themes. What survey takers had to say was really interesting! For a theme around cultural voices, a third of survey takers each selected “What’s New with Old Books” and “New from the Rare Book Library.”

Now for a theme around women, we had a four-way tie. One quarter of survey takers each selected “What’s New with Old Books,” “New from the Rare Book Library,” “Turning Over a New Leaf,” and “Turning the Page.” We saw that titles using the term “new” rose to the top and resonated across themes, while the term “turning” was specifically associated with our women in book arts theme.

I’m betting that the titles using the term “new” did well because it made it really clear that visitors would get to see something they hadn’t seen before. We all want to see something new. While it feels rather literal, a title with the word “new” piques our audience’s curiosity and tells them exactly what they need to know. We have new books to show you!

We heard from visitors about what they thought the exhibition should be called, too. I love some of the more silly titles, like “Book It to the Walters,” or “Extra, Extra, Read All About It!” Thanks to you, we also got to hear about some of the themes you wanted to know about so that we could build an exhibition that was related to your interest.

So based on our research and thanks to your feedback, we arrived at the title, New on the Bookshelf. And during your next visit to the Walters, let us know what you think of your visit in our exit survey. I look forward to reading it.

[00:25:08] Karena Ingram: Thanks so much again to Roslyn Esperon, our Manager of Evaluations and Audience Impact, on sharing more about the important work that you do.

Free access to the Walters Art Museum, online and in person, is made possible through the combined generosity of individual donors, foundations, corporations, and grants from the City of Baltimore, Maryland State Arts Council, Citizens of Baltimore County, and Howard County Government and Howard County Arts Council.

To learn more about engaging with or supporting the Walters, visit

A big thanks to Lynley Herbert, Julie Lauffenberger, and Roslyn Esperon for talking with us today. The Walters Art Museum podcast is made possible by Marketing and Communications Director Connie McAllister, Communications Manager Sydney Adamson, Content Writer, Justin Sanders, IT Specialist, Frank Dickerson, and edited and hosted by me, Karena Ingram.

We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did, please leave us a review and share this episode with your friends. You can visit for more information and to plan your visit. Again, I’m your host, Karena Ingram. Until next time.