By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
10:34 AM EDT, May 20, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of occasional features on prominent local residents and the possessions they treasure.
You can get a pretty good idea of someone's journey through life by looking at the objects with which he surrounds himself.
For Gary Vikan, who stepped down this spring as the director of the Walters Art Museum, those objects include a pair of tickets to Woodstock, a piece of the gate guarding Graceland, a collection of Russian icons and a miniature replica of the Shroud of Turin.
"What all these things have in common," says the 66-year-old Vikan, "is religion — with a big 'R' and a little 'r.' "
Vikan, it seems, is intrigued by devotion of all sorts. For instance, he's less interested in the legendary singer who crooned "Blue Suede Shoes" than he is in the fans who, 35 years after Elvis Presley's death, still make pilgrimages to his Memphis, Tenn., mansion. (His book, "From the Holy Land to Graceland," was published this year.)
As Vikan puts it: "The theme of my Elvis book is that much of the fan behavior at Graceland is a close parallel to what happens at religious sites all over the world."
Vikan's relics can be found in the white brick home with the green shutters in Guilford where he's lived since 1981 with his wife, Elana, and their two grown daughters. He traces his interest in sacred relics back to his boyhood in Minnesota. Though he served as an altar boy in a Lutheran church, he remembers envying his Catholic classmates the opulent trappings that attend high Mass, including incense, music and gold chalices.
"It's strange that I've always been interested in religion without ever being particularly religious myself," Vikan says. "I'm more of a spectator."
He's just completed his next big project: a book on the Shroud of Turin, in which he attempts to prove that the linen burial cloth that many believe once wrapped the body of Jesus actually was made in the Middle Ages, around 1350.
"I've been working with a scientist who found out how the image on the Shroud was made," Vikan says. "And I think I know when and why. It was made to deceive, at a time in the Middle Ages when relics meant pilgrimages, and pilgrimages meant money."
Vikan said the manuscript could be published as soon as this fall.
In the meantime, Vikan is contemplating becoming a consultant on several projects relating to the visual arts — a field also characterized by high priests, rituals and disciples.
He's been chatting with Russian museum officials who want their institutions to become more entrepreneurial, with organizers of a seminar on neuroscience and the arts that might be held in Vienna, Austria, and with 100 leaders of arts groups nationwide who convened recently at Colorado's Sundance Institute.
"I've worked in museums my whole life," Vikan says. "I've been an academic for nine years, a curator for 10 years and a museum director for almost 19 years. I wanted to try other things. And now that I'm no longer representing a particular museum, I'm more free to express my opinions and lend my voice to the museum community."
And chances are that wherever Vikan goes, he'll bring home a relic. It will be just some ordinary object, a little shabby and with zero resale value. But Vikan will see the magic right away, in the patina of grubby fingerprints and heartfelt scrawls left by modern-day pilgrims.
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