Old Is New At Folger Library

Posted June 10, 2009 at 4:51pm

When Juliet famously asked Romeo, “What’s in a name?— William Shakespeare was cautioning his audience against putting too much stock in how we label things.

A particularly relevant example can be seen at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where visitors might expect to see nothing but materials created by the master playwright.

A new exhibition titled “The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault— dispels this notion and reveals the breadth of the library’s collection, showcasing a variety of objects carefully selected by the library’s staff.

Divided into 14 cases, the exhibition culls 95 objects from more than 600,000 books, manuscripts and drawings owned by the Folger. Almost all of the items on display have never been shown in public, coming from acquisitions Folger has made over the years.

Offerings include 19th-century “grimoire— (or magic) books with illustrations of mythical beasts and instructions for conjuring spirits, copies of Shakespeare plays that once belonged to such illustrious individuals as Walt Whitman and Queen Victoria, works bearing the marks of post-Reformation Catholic censors, and a 17th-century book of recipes by early vegetarian Thomas Tryon.

Steven Galbraith, the library’s books curator, explained that since its inception, the Folger Library has expanded to include materials that reflect the early modern period in Europe and England. The current exhibition boasts materials whose origins range from England to Denmark.

“The collections are much broader than the name suggests,— Galbraith said.

Exhibition manager Caryn Lazzuri said the exhibit allows museum staff to present and contextualize items that are “of personal interest to them,— often relating to a given staff member’s specialized field of study.

“It was my hope that the materials that end up in the exhibition would be pretty diverse, and that is certainly what happened,— Lazzuri said.

For example, Galbraith’s case offers what he described as a “behind-the-scenes look— at the process by which numerous works bound into a single volume can be split up and sold off before they might end up at the Folger, where they might again be displayed in some sort of juxtaposition.

Galbraith added that some of the works presented constitute a “bottom-up social history— by featuring the prevailing political and religious debates of their eras.

Galbraith is confident that the variety of novel material on display will lend visitors a fresh perspective. “While it wasn’t a requirement, when a curator’s given an opportunity to bring something up it’s exciting to present something new to the public,— he said.