"People are thinking about London this summer with the queen's 60th anniversary and the Olympics," says Kathleen Lynch, curator of Open City: London, 1500–1700. "We wanted to give them a glimpse of London in the summer of 1608, let's say, or the summer of 1666." During the two centuries covered by the exhibition, she says, the city went through "incredible growth and change," transforming from a small medieval capital to a sprawling, early modern metropolis. "But that's not really the focus; that's the context."
For Lynch, who is Executive Director of the Folger Institute, the "focus," and the fascination, is how individual Londoners experienced the big events of their day. For example, Henry VIII's dissolution of monasteries and other religious properties triggered "huge real estate changes, urban growth and renewal," she says. But on a very local level, exhibition visitors can see the impact more concretely in an otherwise routine lease of three tenements and a wharf by St. Margaret's Parish. In looking at the lease, "what struck me was the date, 1537," Lynch says—and the note on the back: "These three leases are in question to be new made according to the words of the corporation of King Henry the VIII." Essentially, she says, the note is asking, "Do you think the new law will have an effect here? Can we still lease this? Do we still own it?"
Such glimpses of London's history on a local scale are made possible, Lynch says, by the vast Folger collection, which supplied almost all of the rare manuscripts, books, prints, and other works on display, some of them never before displayed. Exhibition consultant Betsy Walsh, Head of Reader Services at the Folger, agrees. "We could only have done this for London" as an individual city, she says. "The depth of the collection made this uniquely possible." Walsh also points out the personal quality of manuscript journals and eyewitness accounts by travelers and Londoners alike—including a day-by-day account of the Great Fire, recast into verse, by 17-year-old Samuel Wiseman.
The collection is especially rich in records of the rapidly evolving Blackfriars district, a former Dominican monastery along the Thames that was soon put to new uses. "There are hundreds of documents," Lynch says. "Account books, memoranda, and more." Visitors may already know of the Blackfriars Theater owned by the Burbages, who were also shareholders in the Globe Theater, "but there was a lot more going on. People were renting townhouses there. Shakespeare bought a Blackfriars townhouse as an investment—we have the deed in the exhibition. The Office of the Revels stored materials in a Blackfriars warehouse. Schoolboys performed in a choir."
Setting such local records in context are a wealth of maps, panoramas, and other images of the city from the Folger collection, including one of Lynch's favorite pieces in the exhibition: the "Long View" of London by the engraver Wenceslaus Hollar. "It's spectacular," says Lynch, "an amazingly large, long series of six engraved panels. This is the first view of London that's elaborated with gestures toward grandeur: cherubs in the sky, monumental figures at the sides, including a goddess of the earth and a god of the sea, a Latin dedicatory poem—all quite new" for an image of the city. "Another exciting thing is that he drew sketches from the tower of a church in Southwark [Southwark Cathedral] that is still there."
Not surprisingly, the library's collection also includes many plays of the period, offering yet another perspective on the city. "So many of the plays are a commentary on the life of London," Lynch says. "Plays are not independent or unrelated to daily life; theater is part of the marketplace, a commercial story. And the plays comment on new developments, new ideas, and new products, too." Among the plays in the exhibition, Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614) depicts the uproarious annual fair at the city's outskirts, she notes, while Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1630) offers a glimpse of London's Cheapside community—as does a hand-drawn, contemporaneous image of the Cheapside market.
"It's all interwoven," Lynch says of these and other glimpses of London's past. "All connected. It's getting us to think about place, what difference a place makes, how people at a local level engaged with major historical events—and the consequences of things having happened in a particular time and place."