Kategoriler: Arts

The Folger Library Wants to Reintroduce You to Shakespeare

Social media is awash with pictures of jaw-dropping libraries, elaborately styled home bookshelves and all manner of drool-worthy Library Porn. But for understated dazzle, it’s hard to compete with a wall in the new basement galleries of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

For decades, the library’s 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio — the largest collection in the world — were locked away in a vault, with access granted only to select scholars. But now, anyone can enter the public galleries and see them displayed in a special wall case, laid flat with spines out.

In the dim, curatorially correct lighting, they glow like some kind of mysterious dark matter. But during a preview of the building, which reopens this weekend after a four-year, $80 million expansion, the Folger’s director, Michael Witmore, reached for a sunnier metaphor.


The Folio — a collection of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, published by his friends in 1623, seven years after his death — is “the ultimate message in a bottle.”

“And the miracle is that every generation opens up the bottle and it turns out the plays, the message, was addressed to them,” Witmore said.

That language may be high-flown, but the goal of the renovation is anything but. Opened on Capitol Hill in 1932 by the collectors Henry and Emily Folger as a gift to the American people, the library has long been a destination for scholars, who come to use what is considered the world’s premier research collection relating to Shakespeare and his times.

But the Folger, a private nonprofit, is hoping to become a more welcoming institution, driving home the message that Shakespeare — and the Folger — is for everyone.

The renovation, by the Philadelphia-based architecture firm KieranTimberlake, creates the library’s first permanent exhibit, nestled in new galleries tucked underneath the existing Tudor-style Great Hall, timbered theater and atmospheric reading room (where the Folgers’ ashes are interred behind a plaque). The desire to place the Folios at the heart of the new galleries grew out of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

That year, the library sent a copy of the Folio to every U.S. state and territory, where host institutions built elaborate programming around it. Roughly 750,000 people showed up, and some reactions were intense.

“We had people breaking down in tears in front of it, or proposing marriage,” Witmore said. “That was a strong indication to us that the book has a certain charisma.”

Before the renovation, the Folger welcomed 60,000 to 70,000 visitors a year — a pittance compared with the roughly two million who visit the (much larger) Library of Congress just next door. Many come on school field trips, and never return.

Surveys showed that people in the surrounding neighborhoods found it forbidding, or confusing. (Was it a private club? A bank?) But Shakespeare himself was not a deal breaker.

“We thought we would get a bunch of people saying, ‘Well, Shakespeare — not for me,’” Peggy O’Brien, the library’s director of education, said. “Nobody said that.”

The building needed “a different handshake,” said Witmore (who is retiring at the end of this month after 13 years at the helm). Previously, visitors entered by climbing the steps to the marble facade, inscribed with soaring quotes from Ben Jonson and other long-dead writers. Now, they follow the descending garden path ringed with a poem by Rita Dove, which exhorts visitors to “clear your calendars, pocket your notes.”

Inside, the first wall panel reads, in big letters, “Shakespeare?” And then below: “He was then and there and he is here and now. Discoveries await!”

Behind it, in a small anteroom, visitors catch a glimpse of part of an intricate black mirror by the African American artist Fred Wilson, who represented the United States at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Opposite it, first seen reflected in its surface, is George Gower’s famous 1579 portrait of Elizabeth I, in milky white lead makeup.

Hung nearby are archival materials relating to Ira Aldridge, most likely the first Black actor to play “Othello,” in 1825. Before that, the role was played by white actors in blackface.

The question of whom Shakespeare “belongs” to is also addressed pointedly in the main exhibit, which pivots quickly from a brief sketch of Shakespeare’s biography to the British colonization of North America, which began in the very years Shakespeare was writing.

On these shores, Shakespeare became canonized as “one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought,” as Emily Folger put it. But that “we” did not necessarily include everyone. “For far too long,” one panel notes, “Shakespeare was seen as both the property of white culture and evidence of its supremacy.”

The Folger itself is part of that history. In 1938, the library’s director, Joseph Quincy Adams, denied a request by Benjamin Brawley, a professor at Howard University, for tickets to the annual Shakespeare Birthday Lecture. While Black scholars could use the reading room, Adams decided that their mingling with white attendees at an “intimate social function” would be “distasteful to a majority of our guests.”

Brawley came anyway. “He single-handedly integrated the social functions of the Folger,” Witmore said.

(Witmore’s successor as director, Farah Karim-Cooper, is the former director of education at Shakespeare’s Globe in London and the author of “The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race.”)

The galleries, which showcase items from across the collection, are ringed with testimonials by a diverse array of scholars and artists who have drawn inspiration from Shakespeare and the Folger’s collections, including Mya Gosling, described as the creator of “the world’s foremost (and perhaps only) stick-figure Shakespeare webcomic.”

Some artifacts highlight the weirder ways that Shakespeare has saturated the culture. There’s a poster from an 1853 production of “The Taming of the Shrew” performed on an icebound ship in the Arctic. A 1984 board game called The Twelfth Night Murder is spread out in one case, as if ready to play.

The exhibition also seeks to bring the First Folio down to earth. Today, it may be the ultimate literary fetish object. (In 2020, a copy sold at auction for nearly $10 million.) But it’s also just a book, made by human hands, and sometimes messed up by them.

In front of the Folio display, there’s a working replica of a 17th-century press, where staff members do demonstrations. As the printers worked on the Folio, they corrected mistakes, piling up corrected pages along with faulty ones. When it came time to assemble the roughly 750 original copies of the book, the pages were bound together in varying combinations. One of the oddities of this most famous of books is that no two copies have exactly the same text.

Touch screens allow visitors to explore traces left in the Folger copies over the centuries by human hands, including annotations and doodles. One of the two copies currently displayed open (they will rotate periodically) is the so-called “eyeglass copy” — named for the faint rust-colored stain from a pair of spectacles left too long on a page.

Greg Prickman, the library’s director of collections, said that showing so many Folios together underlined the value not just of any single Folio, but of a library that gathers many of them together, along with thousands of other books.

“It opens up not just what that book is, and what that book means, but what it means to have a collection,” he said.

Source: nytimes.com


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