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Baltimore's Hackerman mansion: a 'strong reminder of our common humanity'

For several years, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in the United States. Baltimore continues to be a strikingly unequal and segregated city. Yet, in these hard times, the Walters Art Museum has given us a refreshing gift and a strong reminder of our common humanity

In spite of the poverty and violence that plague many of its neighborhoods, Baltimore City remains a cultural hub for the state of Maryland. Step outside city limits and you will not find an equivalent combination of museums, theaters, orchestra access, street art and gastronomic scene.

While some of our anchor cultural institutions have mirrored the social inequality of the city — displaying art collected by wealthy people to mostly affluent white patrons — the leadership at the Walters Art Museum in Mount Vernon has taken laudable efforts to engage with the broader communities that surround them.

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My first outing in the new year was a visit to the Hackerman mansion of the Walters. The mansion had been part of the museum for many years but was closed and reopened to the public only last year after a four-year restoration that cost $10.4 million. The building itself is a stunning attraction, with a beautiful central stairway, crystal chandeliers, ornate ceilings and window views to the Washington Monument. However, what is really fascinating is the innovative — and somewhat subversive — curation of art works inside the mansion.

The art on display at the former Hackerman House — now known as "1 W. Mount Vernon Place" — does not look like the collection of a deceased aristocrat, nor is it organized like the conventional museum, where items are clustered according to civilization or time period. At the mansion, visitors can experience dialogues between time periods, explore intercultural connections and critically reflect on class and racial divisions.

In one of the rooms, ceramic works from ancient Greece, pre-Columbian America, imperial China and other times and places are united by one common thread: They are all red. Another room delves into the global connections of Baltimore, the movement of ceramics around the world and the globalization of esteem for blue-and-white china.

The curation of works at Hackerman also invites the visitor to reflect on class and racial hierarchies. The Walters commissioned artist Roberto Lugo to create pieces for exhibition at the mansion. Mr. Lugo is a social activist and ceramicist who was born in Philadelphia to Puerto Rican parents in 1981. His ceramics at Hackerman were inspired by specific works of the Walters' collection, many of which are associated with wealth and aristocratic taste. The works produced under that inspiration, however, are statements for social justice. Pieces inspired by late 18th century Sèvres porcelain feature images of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died in police custody in 2015.

The Walters Art Museum is reopening to the public the renovated Hackerman House, renamed 1 W. Mount Vernon Place. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Works at Hackerman also pay a tribute to Sybby Grant, a woman who was an enslaved cook at the mansion. Grant worked for the family of John Hanson Thomas (1813-1881), a banker and legislator who was arrested during the Civil War because of his Confederate sympathies. How amazing is it to see a long deceased slave celebrated at the mansion where she once worked?

The social justice aspect of the mansion is actually consistent with its origins as part of the Walters. The building was donated by late philanthropist and industrial giant Willard Hackerman. Admission is free, as it has been for the museum as a whole. Inside, a few lounge areas are available for visitors, along with a room where one can read books from a shelf and write or draw on a shared table. It is a truly special place where symbols of the privileged and of the downtrodden critically face each other and where distant civilizations come together.

For several years, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in the United States. The country's president insists on building a wall on our southern border. Baltimore continues to be a strikingly unequal and segregated city. Yet, in these hard times, the Walters has given us a refreshing gift and a strong reminder of our common humanity. I urge all to visit and enjoy 1 W. Mount Vernon Place.

Felipe A. Filomeno (filomeno@umbc.edu) is an assistant professor of political science and global studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

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