'The Curatorial Eye' at the Folger Shakespeare Library

Among the finds, Edmund Kean as Richard III.
Among the finds, Edmund Kean as Richard III. (Folger Shakespeare Library)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

Nothing was wasted by old bookbinders, which is why it's not surprising to find discarded bits of text reused to make the bindings and covers of moldering tomes at the Folger Shakespeare Library. When old books are conserved, those secrets come to light.

Like a little bit of ancient script found in 1984 inside the binding of two medical texts printed in 1578. It proved to be part of the oldest surviving manuscript written in England, a little bit of waste left over from the 7th century.

The Folger Shakespeare Library sold that particular lost-and-found text because the 7th century isn't in its purview. But other examples of "printer's waste" are on display in a fascinating exhibition, "The Curatorial Eye," that is closing Aug. 29. Unlike most Folger exhibitions, which follow a theme (dreams, food, medicine) in early-modern history, "The Curatorial Eye" follows the whimsy of the Folger's curators, conservators, cataloguers and other experts. It is a potpourri of a show -- and yet it is as interesting and engaging as any of the library's carefully curated shows of the past.

Passion, it turns out, matters in the museum world. And a show that follows the curiosity and passion of the people most knowledgeable about the museum's holdings turns out to be consistently fascinating. It might even be seen as a show about a question fundamental to the long-term purpose and the daily work of every important library in the world: What is interesting?

The 7th-century text (an early history of the church) obviously wasn't of immediate interest to whoever reused it in the 16th century. Nor, for an earlier generation of Folger conservators, was it of interest how individual and often unrelated pamphlets were bound together in larger volumes during the early days of printing. In the 1950s, pamphlets that had lived together inside old bindings for hundreds of years were unbound and filed separately.

Today, that cohabitation is very much of interest -- as evidence of where individual pamphlets originated, the interests of whoever bound them, and the nature of the private book collections from which they came to the Folger. So curators, serving the interests of a new sense of social history, are attempting to recapture what was lost by earlier stewards of the collection. Rather than rebind the old volumes, they are adding data to the Folger's online electronic archive that will tell scholars as much as possible about the original provenance and binding of the now dispersed documents, some of which are on display.

Throughout this exhibition you sense connections between objects and texts that transcend the immediate data-mining of research in the digital age. "You glance at what's on the next shelf and it opens up all sorts of new questions," writes Erin Blake, curator of art and special collections. This is the sort of serendipity that is frequently mourned in the age of electronic databases and online bookstores. It also reminds library users how much still depends on the old "What is interesting?" instincts of library professionals.

Are meticulously decorated, hand-colored drawings of famous 19th-century Shakespearean actors interesting? Absolutely, if only for their suggestion of Shakespeare's power in an earlier age, and a nascent star-craziness that predates our celebrity culture. These colorful oddities are uncannily similar to a notebook made by a Romanian schoolgirl in the 1950s, which has hand-drawn pictures of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. There's a connection here you would not likely find in any digital catalogue. It's as if a thoroughly naive, 19th-century sense of Shakespeare -- the Shakespeare of Charles and Mary Lamb, who recast the plays as children's storybook tales -- was implanted intact, behind the Iron Curtain, in one of Eastern Europe's most brutal countries.

Libraries and museums are constantly making wagers against the future of the interesting. Old cookbooks, a manual on swimming, a phonetic guide to teaching the English language, a treatise on fireworks and handwritten notes from an official censor -- all part of the exhibition -- have become important as scholars move deeper into understanding the minutiae of the centuries surrounding Shakespeare's time.

Fifteen years ago, no one could imagine the immense curiosity that one object on display, a late-16th-century book of magic (opened to the "ABRACADABRA" spell), might hold for young visitors to the Folger. But to the exhibit's credit, there's no mention of Harry Potter, a feat of restraint that deserves a Nobel Prize for not pandering.

Far more interesting than the book's utterly tenuous connection to a contemporary children's book is the story of how it arrived at the Folger. Pages 15-205 were acquired in 1958. Only in 2007 did the Folger manage to buy at auction pages 206-235. The first 14 pages remain elusive. And then, of course, there is the content. The invocations, spells and astrological wisdom were heavily consulted by generations of users, including one whose addition of page numbers, in ink, helped link the material acquired in 2007 to the bulk of the book already held by the library.

The avoidance of any mention of Harry Potter is a remarkable statement about how libraries should connect to the public. Too many institutions stress an openness premised on a very low estimation of the public's curiosity and knowledge level. But in not saying something that a lesser and more desperate institution might stress, the curators of this exhibition demonstrate an old and powerful function of the library: To define what is interesting.

Today, readers can delve digitally into millions of books to find quick hits on what interests them. The old process of cataloguing a book, which meant summarizing its contents in a way that anticipated how future scholars might search for the interesting, is a dying art. It required an act of reduction, an act of exclusion -- this matters, the rest doesn't -- that defined that book's importance within a canon of knowledge.

The Folger is still sitting on vast troves of old pamphlets and handwritten manuscripts that do not, yet, belong to the digital present. Before they can be connected to that vast World Wide Web of things that are easily accessible, it will take scholars to determine what is in them, and what is of interest. That skill, amply on display in "The Curatorial Eye," may well need radical preservation itself in a not-so-distant future.

The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries From the Folger Vault is on display through Aug. 29. Admission is free. Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information visit http://www.folger.edu.

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