From the Director: Preserving a Living Monument

Michael Witmore

When I first visited the Folger in 1989, the building was already known as an architectural gem.

One of several buildings designed by the French-born Philadelphia architect Paul Cret, the Folger Shakespeare Library was designed to house the greatest collection of its kind in a building that spoke both to the Renaissance architectural forms of Shakespeare’s time and the monumental classicism of the US Capitol and Supreme Court.

Creating an architectural language that spanned these two very different contexts was not easy, yet Cret somehow managed to create something beautiful and elegant on a scale quite different from the great buildings that surround it. 

That first visit enchanted me. The whole edifice was and is a bold statement about the interconnectedness of art, collections, history, and scholarship—Anglo-European traditions mixing with a distinctly American passion for self-improvement and an optimism about the intermixing of cultures. Henry and Emily Folger would not have spent a lifetime collecting Shakespeare if they were not convinced that visitors to their library would be elevated by continued engagement with his works and world. Mr. Folger even told his architects that he thought the walls of the building should be like pages from the First Folio, which was why he had quotations from this precious book inscribed on three sides—and in the original spelling and typography!

Soon after I arrived as Director, the Folger embarked on an ambitious 20-year master plan that identified existing needs and those that are emerging. Those needs are significant. How can we welcome people more deliberately and graciously into a building that, over the years, has become less welcoming to people who expect more of cultural, academic and educational institutions? How can we show our collection more effectively, reaching many, many more people with the wonders of Shakespeare and his early modern world? How can we house a growing staff, provide for students and teachers, and keep up with changing research methods?  


"85 years after our opening, we are putting into action a number of plans that will enhance and unlock our building for future generations."


85 years after our opening, we are putting into action a number of plans that will enhance and unlock our building for future generations. This year we will begin by cleaning the façade of our building, a painstaking process that will carefully and safely remove dirt and chemical deposits from the marble of our exterior walls. The bas reliefs will also be conserved and restored so that Falstaff’s nose will stick around for another 85 years.

Shakespeare is our middle name. We are stewards of a precious resource of world heritage and culture—a living tradition that offers something truly elevating. We may not be able to immortalize ourselves in poetry as Shakespeare did, but we can preserve the treasures we are fortunate enough to possess, starting with the wonderful monument that the Folgers built from marble, wood, and aluminum.  I am grateful to everyone whose support of the Folger and its mission allows us to keep sharing this growing, indispensable legacy.


This article is from the Spring 2018 issue of  Folger Magazine.