Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Q&A: Michael Witmore on serving as Folger director and the Folger renovation

As we announced last year, Michael Witmore, who became director of the Folger on July 1, 2011, will step down as director on June 30, 2024—about a week after the June 21 grand reopening of the Folger renovation project, which was conceived of early in his tenure. He will be succeeded as director by Farah Karim-Cooper.

Read our Q & A with Witmore, in which he answered several questions about his experiences as Folger director, including the Folger renovation, the reopening, and more.

What was your favorite moment as director of the Folger and why?

When the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and his team, including security, walked into the Reading Room to see our researchers at work. It was years ago. The Reading Room was full. Not a single person looked up. It was one of the proudest moments of my tenure as director, because, as I said to Chief Justice Roberts, these scholars are immersed in a world that is hundreds of years behind us.

It sounds as though they were so focused and so transported.

Yes, they were.

How has your time at the Folger affected your relationship with Shakespeare and his works?

I used to have a lot to say about Shakespeare’s plays and language. Pretty much everything I’ve learned, I put into this project, the Folger renovation, which I hope restates the value of Shakespeare for a diverse and engaged world. I’m not sure I’ll have much more to say about Shakespeare, because I think the renovation speaks for itself. It embodies a view that knowledge and wisdom that’s hard won can be the basis of an inviting and deeply inclusive institution.

Henry and Emily Folger put the Folger at the heart of the US capital on Capitol Hill, rather than in a rustic setting or a remote campus. How does its location shape the nature of the Folger, and how did it shape your experience as its director?

I was already aware of the civic purpose of the Folger and its closeness to some of the most important institutions for American democracy. But over time, I came to appreciate the importance of the decision to locate the Folger in Washington, DC, which is a city that has its own culture, much like London in the 1580s. Washington is a city that is host to the official institutions of power, but is also a vibrant culture with its own creativity and communities. So it is perfectly appropriate that we continue to explore theater, music, and poetry in this community with its unique vantage point on power and people.

You envisioned how a decades-old library in a historic building could physically grow and embrace new goals and then made it possible for that to happen from start to finish. Visitors are just beginning to step inside. I realize you could write a book about this, but what has it been like to begin such a project and then see it come to fruition? What do you hope visitors will see and enjoy?

It’s immensely satisfying to see a project that was first envisioned in the strategic plan in 2013, finally be realized so beautifully in 2024, 11 years later. I probably couldn’t have imagined how many challenges there would be to completing a project like this, but I’m very grateful to the Folger staff and to the creative team for staying true to the vision of what we wanted to accomplish.

We wanted to take a major research library and make it the beating heart of a cultural destination in Washington. But we also wanted to make a clear and sincere invitation to everyone in Washington and to visitors to the city to come into our building and be inspired. When I stand at the corner of East Capitol and 2nd Street now and look across the garden and hear Puck’s fountain and see into the new pavilion, I feel satisfied that our welcome is sincere and lasting.

Did serving as the director of the Folger give you a special insight into the value of the humanities and of Shakespeare today?

For me, the humanities are about the humanized drama in every part of contemporary life. We have a tendency to seek knowledge on the grand scale in systems and networks or on the very tiny scale in genetics or physics. But there’s something special and especially true about the drama of the human heart and the demands made on people in every situation.

What do you think we should do with those realizations?

Start with people first. Start with what is immediately around us. There’s plenty to work with. And with respect to Shakespeare, he was alive to the deepest dreams that are so hard to name and some of the most powerful longings—for example, for justice in a world of injustices. And in that way, he speaks directly to the conflicts and hopes that we are working through today. We’re not done with Shakespeare and he’s not done with us.

As director, you marked the three major anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth (1564, observed in 2014), his death (1616, observed in 2016), and the publication of the First Folio (1623, observed in 2023). Which was the biggest? And what did you learn from it?

What we all learned from 2016, when we sent a First Folio to 50 states and two territories, was that the First Folios—and other books that carry or that bear witness to Shakespeare’s plays—are immensely moving. Over 750,000 people engaged with our programming that year, which increased our conviction that our offerings to the public can be guided by Shakespeare’s stories themselves, but also by the sources of those stories and the continuing dialogues and debates we have with this writer in performance and scholarship.

Something else that sets your directorship apart is your embrace of modern art in connection with Shakespeare, from modern photographs in the Very Like a Whale exhibition to a commissioned vocal work, “The Isle,” by composer Caroline Shaw to the three commissioned works of art for the renovation, and perhaps others, too.  What are your thoughts about this throughline? Why is it important and how do you hope the Folger can continue to pursue it in the future?

Yes, there were others, too. Contemporary artists see things well in advance of the rest of us, and they have the power to reframe and reenergize traditions and works of art in ways that surprise and challenge us. The voices of contemporary artists are a necessary part of the continuing legacy of Shakespeare and are a continuing exploration of the sources of the world we live in. It is my great hope that we continue to turn to contemporary artists for inspiration and perspective.

Learn more about Michael Witmore at the Folger: