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Folger Story

Exploring the Folger through New Exhibition Halls

woman looking at a tablet while a man and young girl point to a printing press displayed in an exhibition hall

From a new art installation to rare and fascinating objects, far more of the Folger collection will soon be on display in exhibition spaces located just inside the garden-level public wing. Meant to be visited and revisited, including by families with children, the new spaces bring the collection into view in a more inviting, more expansive way than was possible before.

Folger extends renovation timeline to 2024
Aerial view of the west entry plaza and gardens, with ramps and stairs leading down to the building entrance

Folger extends renovation timeline to 2024

Press release: August 9, 2023

One of the glories of the Folger renovation project is a pair of large modern exhibition halls located in the Adams Pavilion—a new wing under the original building that extends below the front lawn. Together, the two halls provide 6,000 square feet of space, all of it designed for sharing more of the collection. “What we were missing,” says Folger Director Michael Witmore, “was a safe, accessible space to show rare material in the most beautiful and compelling way possible.”

“The new halls are really bespoke for exhibition space, in terms of light and climate control,” says Head of Exhibitions David McKenzie. “They can also house exhibitions much better. We can create wall coverings and build structures and make a much more immersive space.”

To plan the exhibitions in that welcoming space, Greg Prickman, the Eric Weinmann Librarian and director of collections, and Peggy O’Brien, director of Folger Education, joined forces. They have been aided by many Folger staff, scholars, and outside firms, including exhibition designer Studio Joseph, media interactive designer Bluecadet, and Storythings, which focused on the visitors’ exhibition experience and narrative. Studio A is designing the first temporary exhibition.

One of the early steps, O’Brien says, involved a Folger team leading community focus groups of DC residents with the help of consultant Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Among the key findings was a need for cultural inclusion and an interest in far more content for families and children.

exhibition gallery

Shakespeare Exhibition Hall. Rendering by Studio Joseph.

These insights were put to work in both halls, which have different missions: The northern hall is the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall. The hall to its south, the Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall, focuses on rare, sometimes spectacular materials from throughout the collection, as well as temporary shows. Each one will be filled with engaging experiences and activities, and a special path for children will wind its way through both.

Shakespeare “Here and Now”

In planning for the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall, O’Brien says she and Prickman used an observation by Ian Smith, an English professor currently at Lafayette College who will be at the University of Southern California next year, as a cornerstone. Smith said of Shakespeare, “He wrote there and then, but we are dealing with his plays here and now.” For O’Brien, “that describes what we are trying to do. We want to give visitors a sense of both there and then, as well as the here and now. We want them to see lots of items up close, to engage with many of them, and to see how they’re connected to many periods and places.”

exhibition gallery showing a visitor looking at a bust of actor Earle Hyman as Othello

Shakespeare Exhibiton Hall. Rendering by Studio Joseph.

The hall uses that insight in many ways. Near the west entrance, on the US Capitol side, it includes a new installation by the artist Fred Wilson, whose works reframe cultural symbols and encourage users to reconsider social, racial, and historical narratives. Nearby, a separate exhibition area uses rare and intriguing materials from different centuries to illuminate Shakespeare’s life and times, Shakespeare in America, and Shakespeare in Washington, DC. This area includes a bust of actor Earle Hyman as Othello. Best known for playing Cliff Huxtable’s father in The Cosby Show and Panthro and other roles in the series ThunderCats, Hyman, who passed away at 91 in 2017, was the first African American actor to portray all four of these major Shakespearean roles: Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet.

The east entrance, on the “theater side” of the Folger, has even more dramatic flair. Directly in front of the entrance is a playful, simplified theater. Visitors use prompts to elicit stand-alone Shakespeare lines to create a conversation that will be surprising, moving, or just silly. An exhibition next to that activity focuses on Shakespeare’s plays, with a variety of collection items, which might include a translated script, materials from musical adaptations, or historic stage props. When the Folger opens, it will include a crown that was worn by 19th-century actress Marie Drofnah in The Winter’s Tale, a play that will also be Folger Theatre’s production this fall.

The First Folios Take the Stage

At the heart of the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall is a centerpiece that only the Folger could produce: all 82 copies of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare that were collected by Henry and Emily Folger, by far the largest such holding in the world. Without the First Folio, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays that was published seven years after his death, 18 of the plays might have been lost forever. To put all the Folger First Folios on display “is an amazing thing and a transformative thing for the Folger to be doing,” says Prickman. “The creation of this new space and experience is all about making this collection accessible. We’re taking objects of great and lasting cultural significance and moving them from the deepest vault to right inside the front door.”

A large wall case displaying rows of single books laid flat and closed. In front of the case is a table with open books on display and a touchscreen.

Visitors can visually take in 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio and then, via touchscreen, explore selected Folios further–as a detective, or a storyteller, or a collector. Rendering by Studio Joseph.

Moreover, says Prickman, “part of the decision in placing the First Folios on display is to say that this will be their permanent storage environment. So there will be times when there are missing copies. Someone will be up in the reading room using one, another copy may be on loan to another institution. That’s the nature of a collection that’s in use.” Except when one of the First Folios is being used elsewhere, 80 of them will be stored in a 20-foot-wide “visible vault.” The other two will be displayed in tabletop cases, where visitors can see them up close. Visitors can learn more about the First Folios, too, from one-minute presentations to an interactive that allows curious visitors to delve further, exploring information about the Folger First Folios as a detective, a storyteller, or a collector.

Two portraits of Shakespeare side by side with a question - "Can you find the three differences?"

First Folio interactive. Shakespeare exhibition hall.

The Hands-On Work of Printing Early Books

Sharing the stage with the Folger First Folios is a working, full-scale, historic printing press made of oak that shows how the First Folios were produced. Prickman says, “We asked a press builder in England named Alan May to make us a press that is as close to what would have issued the First Folio as possible. He decided to base it on a description from Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises on the whole Art of Printing. It was the first English-language printing manual.” May is a specialist in making historic presses, which he has produced for institutions like the Folger and for film and television productions.

an adult and child looking at a printing press, with the First Folio display in the background

A fully functional printing press modeled on ones that printed Shakespeare’s Folios will offer visitors a chance to see and participate in how these pages were created in 1623. Shakespeare Exhibition Hall. Rendering by Studio Joseph.

“The press will be in the exhibition hall in front of the case with the First Folios,” says Prickman, and it will be used in demonstrations. To give visitors a firsthand experience, inventive “printing with light” stations will allow them to typeset words and to see, using light on the wall above, how the words would appear in print.

Two teen girls, the one at left seated in a wheelchair and the one at right seated on a stool, compose type as if they were printing a book in the 17th century and the words are displayed above their two printing stations. A seated man to the left look on as do two girls standing to the right of the printing stations.

Printing with Light Interactive. Shakespeare Exhibition Hall. Rendering by Studio Joseph.

Exploring a Vast Collection… and Beyond

Unlike the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall, with its large-scale structures, the Rose Hall is a more flexible space meant to showcase some of the rarest and most remarkable books and manuscripts from the Folger collection—and, in the case of some temporary exhibitions, objects outside the Folger collection as well. The temporary shows will be housed in the gallery at the west end of the Rose Hall, which will open this November with a stunning exhibition of highlights from Stuart Rose’s extraordinary collection.

A room with bookshelves and a center table. Children are pointing to a book they see on a shelf.

In the Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall, visitors will be offered another way to approach the Folger collection—and a chance to fold their own folios too. Rendering by Studio Joseph.

In the center gallery of the Rose Hall, a space that is packed with rare books provides an intriguing, very specific sample of the vast Folger collection. To honor the 400th anniversary of the 1623 First Folio, this gallery’s first display will be books from the Folger collection produced in the 1620s by the businesses associated with the First Folio’s production, as well as the most prolific publishing houses in Europe, offering an unusual context for the First Folios that few other institutions could provide.

Visitors looking with curiosity and interest at open books in exhibition cases

Visitors will be able to examine and interact with materials out of the vault in the Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall, and at the same time get a sense of all that goes on at the Folger. Rendering by Studio Joseph.

Meanwhile, at the east end, a gallery shares standout items from the Folger collection, displayed on individual islands set off by long, colorful curtains. The gallery associates each island with a Folger activity in which the collection is used, such as research, teaching and learning, stage performance, collecting, conservation, and more, sometimes with related hands-on activities. Among the most stunning pieces on view when the Folger opens will be Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, printed by the early English printer William Caxton in about 1477. The Caxton book is used to discuss the role of collecting by the Folger, which continues to this day.

As Prickman puts it, the gallery offers visitors different ways to explore the items on view. “If you have five minutes and you want to see truly breathtaking stuff,” he says, “go through that gallery, and you will be happy. But if you want to spend a little bit more time, you will also start to see that these things aren’t just spectacular pieces that we think are important. They are also the material that people come to the Folger to do work on, to create new knowledge, and to make new discoveries.”

In a sense, those different ways of exploring signature objects in the Folger collection echo the many ways that the First Folio display can also be viewed. The 82 First Folios may be seen simply as an extraordinary display or else as a window into the plays they collected and preserved. “The Folger is a living memorial to William Shakespeare,” says Witmore, “but the First Folio is like a living conversation between people today and what they find in it.”

Learn more

Building renovation
Aerial view of the west entry plaza and gardens, with ramps and stairs leading down to the building entrance

Building renovation

Our building and grounds
The front exterior of the Folger building showing windows and bas reliefs

Our building and grounds

About the Folger First Folios
Folger First Folio exhibition

About the Folger First Folios