It’s that time of year again: for two weeks every four months or so, the Folger’s Great Hall locks its doors and transforms from one exhibition into the next. Or, perhaps that’s how it seems to Folger visitors and readers and staff who are barred from the space and have to wait to see the next show. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind those closed, locked doors, let me give you a little glimpse . . .
sign at entrance to the Great Hall
The old exhibition, the one that’s coming off view—we take that down on the very first day. Cases are unlocked, books are unstrapped from their exhibit mounts, facsimiles and labels are gathered up, and everything returns to its home back on the shelves, in the drawers, into the archives. Then the work begins.
Rugs get rolled up, tables and trash cans are brought in, and conservation comes down from the lab armed with hammers and nail guns, drills, magnets, and lots of tiny triangles of plastic vivak. We move rare materials into their new homes—Case 2, Case 8, the pilaster before Case 5—and we work off the plans we drew up months ago, during Case Layouts, to arrange each case into a neat array of rare materials on view.
placing items in the case
Those loud noises you hear from the Reading Room? Nail guns and hammering most likely, or the rolling ladder chattering its way across the uneven tiles so that we can hang wall panels.
using a nail gun to fix labels in the case
Folger conservators place exhibition items in a case
wheeling the ladder through the Hall
Once everything is in place, the lighting must be fixed, and small adjustments made here or there. Each label has to be just-so, of course.
At the midway point, loans from other institutions arrive. Each lender’s contract is different, but many require a courier to accompany the loan material and supervise installation. We measure light levels, temperature, and humidity, and when those levels meet the approval of the lender and everything is where it needs to be, we close and seal the case with the courier present, and—in many cases—we are contractually obligated not to open it again until the installation comes down and the courier is present once again.
The exhibition currently being installed is Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible. This NEH-funded exhibition is a collaborative effort with the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. A total of fourteen institutions or individuals have lent material to be on display in this exhibition, with several more contributing facsimiles. Each loan, each facsimile, each Folger artifact, each panel on the wall has a specific place in the show, and directing that choreography is one of the most gratifying parts of my job as Exhibitions Manager. A result of two years of work by curators, conservators, designers, and editors, this exhibition finally materializes into something tangible in a two-week flurry of constant activity. I love the “curtain-up” moment when we sweep up the dust, roll the rugs back out, turn on the lights, and open the doors.
I hope you’ll come by and see the show, which opens to the public on September 23. We’ve got some amazing stuff to see—early biblical manuscripts, a Bishop’s Bible that probably belonged to Elizabeth I, a “Wicked” Bible with a misprinted commandment, association Bibles from a people as disparate as a sixteenth-century traveler and Elvis Presley, and even a stake for burning heretics.
replica of a stake for burning heretics
“Manifold Greatness” will be on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library from September 23 through January 15. From February 28 through June 2, the exhibit will be at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. You can learn more about the King James Bible on the exhibition’s website and on its blog. A traveling exhibition has also been made possible by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.