Read All About It

Posted September 30, 2008 at 3:29pm

The Folger Shakespeare Library is making headlines these days — literally — thanks to its new exhibit, “Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth

of the Newspaper.”

A movable-type printing press replica featured in the library’s latest exhibit was put into use by museum employees to print off a dozen or so fliers for the exhibit.

“We thought it would be fun,” Folger spokeswoman Amy Arden said, gesturing to the fliers that sit atop the press, stationed in the corner of the library’s exhibition hall.

While the working press adds a nice touch of reality to the exhibit, the show’s focus on the evolution of the news business in the 17th century is the main headline. The exhibit follows the evolution of newspapers from Great Britain, which saw its first paper — an import from Amsterdam, Netherlands — in 1620, to the Americas, where publications followed developments in the old country and tracked political developments in the new land.

Just steps from the Capitol, the Folger exhibit strikes an ironic twist as it chronicles the delicate source-journalist relationship that existed even in the 1600s, from government censorship to propaganda pieces. The government of Charles I banned English newspapers in 1632. Censorship rules faded by 1641 and spurred the outgrowth of sensational and shocking publications. The public was also hungry for news during that period because of the Thirty Years’ War, which broke out in 1618.

The Folger’s exhibit spans a century, from the early 1600s to the 1700s. The period overlaps with the life of William Shakespeare, who lived from 1564 to 1616.

“We’re not just focusing on Shakespeare’s life here, but the time he was living in,” Arden said. “The printed word was very much a part of his lifetime.”

The news business, competitive and constantly changing, was a tough startup market even for the enterprising British colonists of the 17th century. Publications launched and closed in the same week, and faced tight budgets and fickle readers. (Sound familiar?)

The Folger exhibit also features some of Great Britain’s earliest publications, including A Perfect Diurnall, which published weekly from 1642 to 1655 and followed news coming out of Parliament.

The exhibit travels the flow of information to the new colony of America, where the city of Boston became a news hub. Even in America’s earliest days, the relationship between journalists and public officials was a confrontational one. The Boston publication Publick Occurrences hit doorsteps only once in 1690, and it was shut down after a story alleging incest in the French royal family sparked the anger of the governor. It wasn’t until 1704, with the first issue of the Boston News-Letter, that colonists and curious readers had a reliable news source. The paper folded in 1776.

“The printing press from the early 16th century was a tool which the government both sought to exploit and control,” exhibit curator Chris Kyle said.

Splashy headlines are featured in the exhibit to showcase sensational journalism and the trend of crime and violence selling papers and exciting readers. The exhibit includes copies of the Bloody Newes from Dover’s story on radical Puritans protesting the Presbyterian Church, and stories of the murder of English magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey in 1678, which sparked an anti-Catholic uproar and flooded the pages of British publications.

The news-minded exhibit is also a timely one, running from Sept. 25 through Jan. 31 and spanning the height of election season. Scanning the Shakespeare-era headlines and propaganda pieces that hang in the Folger’s darkly lit exhibition hall offers a quick reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.