Shaking Up the Bard: Folger Shakespeare Library’s $80.5 Million Renovation

By Sophia Hall

“Shake up your Shakespeare” is one of the many new interactive exhibits in the Folger Shakespeare Library, following a major $80.5 million renovation. On Friday, June 21, the library will be officially open to the public to start shaking up their expectations of the Bard –– diehard fans might come away with something new and high schoolers forced to read Shakespeare’s plays will gain a newfound appreciation for his works.

Folger Shakespeare Library’s East Entrance at night, with view of the Capitol Building. Photo by Alan Karchmer.

The deliberately imposing marble facade of the Folger, blocks away from the Capitol and the Supreme Court, may intimidate some visitors. However, the addition of a modern underground pavilion inserted beneath the grand Tudor-Stewart-Deco-Greco building will make the Folger not only “more accessible” but also turn “a cultural destination out of a great research library,” explained Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore. 

Opened in 1932, the Folger today offers itself up as a magical respite for tourists and locals alike as they venture along the historic streets of Capitol Hill. The private institution contains the world’s largest collection of the printed works of William Shakespeare, 

Though the highlight of the library’s expanded exhibition space is the display of all 82 copies of the Folger’s first folios (the first published collection of all Shakespeare’s plays), the other exhibits will equally fascinate visitors of all ages. Demonstrations at the custom-made printing press, “light printing” with magnetic blocks with Shakespearean language, and duels with friends using Shakespearean insults like “fly-bitten” and “maggot-pie” are just a few of the interactive ways that visitors can engage with the collection and the works of William Shakespeare. In order to meet younger guests at their level, exhibition designers literally placed more kid-friendly puzzle and spy games at a lower eye line. Greg Prickman, Director of Collections of Exhibitions, emphasized these initiatives to make the library “a space for all ages.”

Exploring the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall, with Folger Shakespeare Library’s 82 First Folios on display, a fully functioning, replica printing press, and treasured items from the Folger collection. Photo by Alan Karchmer.

In addition to new Shakespeare-focused exhibits, the library also spotlights rare books that are equally as influential on popular culture as the Bard. The “Imprints in Time” exhibition displays galley proofs of the “Lord of the Rings” series with J.R.R. Tolkien’s handwriting, an advance press copy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the first European printing of Confucius.

Three commissioned works of art by contemporary artists will offer visitors creative entry points through which to consider Shakespeare. US Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s new poem, engraved along the garden path down to the West Entrance, encourages visitors to “Clear your calendars” as they get transfixed by the magic of the musical-like space.

The first production at the Folger Theatre since its renovation, a version of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” perfectly mirrors the transformation of the space. Though this production ends on Sunday, June 23, look out for “Romeo & Juliet” next season.

Light bites, coffee and tea are available for purchase at the new cafe, Quill & Crumb, located just outside the theater, as well as a full-service bar in the evenings.

Tomorrow’s 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Folger includes Mayor Muriel Bowser, poet Kyle Dargan, among others.

The Folger recommends visitors use timed-entry passes to ensure entry into the Folger’s new exhibition halls. Passes may be booked up to three months in advance. For researchers, the main Reading Room will open Tuesday, June 25. Admission is free, though there is a suggested $15 donation per person to support operating costs.

Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore. Photo by Chris Hartlove.



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