Curator's Insights: A Monument to Shakespeare

In a way, it's the largest item ever displayed at the Folger Shakespeare Library: the Great Hall itself. "Early on, we made a rule that the thing to be exhibited is the Great Hall—which is never seen according to its original intent, to be light-filled by day," says Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library and co-curator of A Monument to Shakespeare: The Architecture of the Folger Shakespeare Library. By raising the shades on the windows to let in the daylight, "you show off the room as part of the collection," he says. "The whole space changes."

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Seven Ages of Man stained-glass window in the historic reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library
Seven Ages of Man stained-glass window

On the interior wall of the Great Hall, curtains have also been pulled away from the glass doors into the Reading Room. This lets researchers "see out into the daylight, which is a completely intentional part of the architecture," says Witmore. But the doors also let exhibition-goers see into the Reading Room, says co-curator Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts and associate librarian of audience development. "They give an opportunity for visitors to peer into the Reading Room, to see the Seven Ages of Man stained-glass window and Shakespeare's memorial bust."

In addition to illuminating the Great Hall, the exhibition uses vivid, and often very large, architectural plans, as well as key letters, to tell more of the building's story. "When I became director, I was fascinated by the correspondence between the Folgers and the architect," says Witmore. "They were the only people with a blank piece of paper to think about the Folger. What was it that they thought they were building? It just made sense to go to the sources."

Letting in the sunlight meant that the original plans and letters could not be displayed, but it was also difficult to create reproductions of the plans, which are nearly 90 years old. "The digitization was challenging," says Wolfe. "Some of the plans were actual size, like the pattern of the aluminum grilles for the windows. Some were well over 8 feet high and a few feet wide, and they had been folded for years. Our conservators worked closely with the photographers" to keep the plans safe.

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 Letter Folger to Cret 01/17/1930 - Look at First Folio "head pieces" for ornamentation of quotations, sending facsimile of First Folio for that purpose, use capitals from First Folio.
Letter from Henry Folger to Paul Cret, 01/17/1930

The letters on display, which are also replicas, were chosen from an absolute cornucopia of correspondence, resulting from the fact that those involved were in different places. "The Folgers were in New York," says Wolfe. "Paul Cret, the architect, was in Philadelphia, and Alexander Trowbridge, the consulting architect, and the construction team were in DC—plus the Folgers were sometimes on holiday."

Among the documents, "I really love that letter from Henry Folger," says Wolfe. "What is meant by the expression 'Air conditioning'?" Henry and Emily Folger ultimately decided that the rare books needed air conditioning, but they did not supply it for places where people would work. "They were quite open to technical innovations," she says, but the idea was just too new. "They couldn't yet conceive of a comfortable indoor space in the summer in Washington."

The exhibition also explores the Folger's architecture through a new perspective, a drone video that is displayed in the hall. The drone captured "long sweeping shots, revealing the grandeur of the Great Hall," says Witmore, and the video shows the beauty of other spaces, too. "There's a wonderful shot of candelabras in the Reading Room," he says. "In the theater, it reveals things like a painted ceiling, just as you walk in."

Several very different architectural views of the front of the building show how it evolved, as did the Folger, during the planning stage. "It went from a traditional, classical facade to something else," says Wolfe. The final version has "three inscriptions and scenes from nine different plays. The Folgers even sent Paul Cret a modern facsimile of the First Folio to observe its typography and see the printer ornaments. The building became more and more bookish." Emily Folger called it "the First Folio, illustrated."

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 East Capitol Street elevation, lower wings
Architectural plan by Paul Cret showing the East Capitol Street elevation, lower wings. Folger Archives: Case Drawer 2, sheet 12

Looking at the changing plans, Witmore sees an evolution from a memorial to something more active and alive. "What the deep mission is," says Witmore, "is not simply to be a place of memory, to remember there was this fantastically talented writer. It's a polemical statement: that democracy depends on the use of words, that it needs the wisdom of history and poetry, and that's part of why this is here in Washington. It's a startling and ambitious idea. But the Folgers met Cret and found that he could take their love of Shakespeare and Shakespeareana to create a civic institution—a marble building within two blocks of the US Capitol, inscribed with words by an English poet."