The Walker Art Gallery opened its refurbished Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Galleries in July last year. The redevelopment by National Museums Liverpool (NML) is named Renaissance Rediscovered and the aim is to decolonise collections, explore connections to slavery and empire, as well as offer new perspectives.
The organisation’s work in this area is immediately clear as you enter the building, with a large Black Lives Matter text panel displayed in the cafe detailing NML’s continued commitment to anti-racism.
Visitors can scan a QR code at the information desk to view a floorplan, but unfortunately there aren’t print-outs available to those without a smartphone. A friendly staff member at the information desk gave clear directions to the galleries and acknowledged that the layout of room numbers and wayfinding is confusing.
Indeed, you enter the rooms backwards, having to go via Rooms 8 and 5 to access Room 4, which is the first of the refurbished spaces. You then move from Room 4 to 3 to 2 to 1, and it seems odd that the staff didn’t just curate them the other way round so they’d run chronologically. An online map does explain the logic behind the numbering of the rooms.
Nonetheless, Room 4 is beautiful with soft-grey walls, black display cases with white interiors, large, clear interpretation panels and spot lighting. The impeccably clean glass cases are at a wheelchair accessible height, with prints mounted at an elevated angle. Each piece is individually lit by smaller spotlights and interpretation is at a low height.
Access to the gallery is step-free via a lift near the entrance, yet some doors are cumbersome to open without automatic buttons, meaning some people may need help.
An exciting feature of Room 4 is that works on paper are regularly changed – the staff member at the information desk explained that the works are fragile and environmental conditions closely controlled. Highlights from the collection are available to view before being put into storage.
This is a wonderful chance for visitors to see more of NML’s remarkable collection. The hope is that the circulation also offers an opportunity for curators to update visitors on new research as part of this project.
Another notable aspect, which is the approach in all four rooms, is the discussion around provenance – acknowledging the colonial histories of the items on display by stating who owned them, where they were collected and how.
Attention is directed towards collectors’ marks at the bottom of works – one panel states that this used to add value, on top of the artist’s signature, to an artwork. This allows visitors to question what value means in this context. Interpretation successfully makes the concept of provenance accessible to those who might not be familiar with the term.
In Room 3, Baroque Art in Europe, you are first confronted by the magnificent 17th-century painting, Allegory of Painting and Music by the artist Giovanni Andrea Sirani.
NML made this acquisition in 2022 as part of the Renaissance Reimagined project and it is the first by the artist to enter a UK collection. The painting powerfully introduces the theme of sexism, which is scrutinised throughout these galleries – a welcome addition to any space in my view.
Just around the corner is another 17th-century painting, The Rape of Europa by Bernardo Cavallino, which illustrates the Greek myth of the princess Europa being lured by the god Zeus in the form of a bull. The painting made me feel uncomfortable and would perhaps benefit from a trigger warning prior to entering.
On which note, the visitor team are easily identifiable by pink lanyards but were not stationed in any of the four rooms. It would be helpful to have someone nearby to support visitors who are overwhelmed by the themes, and for there to be a quiet room available.
These would be particularly useful for neurodiverse visitors who may wish to take a break from loud school groups, for example. Being made aware when groups are likely to be present would also be helpful.
Beside the entrance to Room 3 is an interpretation panel detailing the heart of the project, headlined Forming a Collection. It discusses how members of the Liverpool Royal Institution, which donated its art collection to the Walker in 1948, made their fortunes through the transatlantic slave trade.
At the bottom of the panel is a QR code leading to a section of the website about the legacies of slavery. This is an inspiring resource, built by cross-referencing collections with the University College London’s Legacies of British Slavery database.
You can learn how individual artworks have connections to slavery in more detail, and can search by item name, place collected, culture and more.
Room 2 is dedicated to Late Renaissance Art in Italy. The perspective is refreshing in that it explains how countries across Europe were involved in the Renaissance beyond Italy, and how each country’s unique style developed as a result during this period, particularly as the effect of religious reforms and increasingly secular subjects became more common.
This signifies another important theme within the project, of highlighting the lives of ordinary people as opposed to the elite. I was thrilled to see a number of objects from the gallery’s decorative art collection newly and so elegantly displayed and speaking to this theme. This includes an intricate wine glass, made in about 1600 and purchased by the gallery in 1876, as well as goblets, dishes, furniture and jewellery.
Room 1, which focuses on medieval art, continues the themes that can be identified throughout the project.
This includes a painting dated around 1380 of Salome by Aretino Spinello, where the myth of Salome as a symbol of dangerous female seductiveness is put into the context of its sexist origins.
Also in Room 1 is a brief reference to LGBTQ+ histories within the interpretation of The Martyrdom of St Sebastian (c.1496-1500) by Bartolomeo di Giovanni. St Sebastian is considered to have become one of the first gay icons – he is nearly always depicted scantily clad and pierced with arrows. It is fantastic to see medieval art analysed through a queer lens, albeit a little sparsely.
Renaissance Rediscovered signifies a new lease of life for the Walker. Sadly, the sleek curation is in stark contrast to some of the tired facilities on the ground floor, which require improvement. But the refurbished galleries represent a beacon of hope.
Abigail Hawkins is the assistant visitor team manager at Manchester Museum, University of Manchester