Curator Q&A:
The Folger Shakespeare Library

By Maura McCarthy Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2003


    'A Midsummer Night's Dream' Folger Shakespeare Library "A Midsummer Night's Dream" bas-relief by John Gregory. Folger Shakespeare Library
Photo Gallery: Museum Highlights

When Director Gail Kern Paster assumed leadership of the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2002, she arrived with a distinct devotion to the institution. It had long been a magnet for Paster, a professor of English at George Washington University for 27 years. As a two-time recipient of a Folger fellowship, Paster also understood the significance of the library as an international center for Shakespeare scholars.

Those experiences fostered Paster's deep appreciation of the Folger's unique mission. Since its founding in 1932, the library --- the world's largest repository for Shakespeare texts -- has acquired rare books and Shakespeareana and made them available to scholars. The Folger also extends itself into the community through a series of public programs. Exhibitions feature collection highlights, and performances -- plays, concerts and readings -- round out the institution that Paster finds "a great privilege to lead."

Name three objects no visitor to your institution should miss.
1. Before entering the building, every visitor should see the nine bas relief sculptures by John Gregory that run across the outside of the building. Each depicts a different scene from one of Shakespeare's plays. Those sculptures, along with the art deco architecture, make the building a work of art in itself.

2. Inside, we always have one of Shakespeare's First Folios on display. As the largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works, the Folger has 79 of his First Folios, more than any other institution. A library in Japan has the second most -- 11.

3. I hope that visitors will come and look at the Elizabethan-style theater, the site of our plays and many public programs.

Which object is your personal favorite and why?
A unique book in our collection is the quarto (small edition) of Shakespeare's early tragedy "Titus Andronicus." For centuries, it was believed there was no early printing of the play; but a 1594 printing was discovered in the early 20th century. A bookseller offered the quarto to Henry Clay Folger for $2,000, a staggering sum at the time. Folger asked if he could walk around the block to think about it. He came back, bought the book and now it is one of the most precious objects we have. We have other quartos, but this one is special and represents a great discovery.

Which object do you wish was on display, but is not?
Earlier this year we had Queen Elizabeth's Bible on display, but it is now back in the vault. It's a pulpit Bible, presented to Elizabeth by her bishops and used in her private chapel. It's quite large, covered in red velvet with her initials and the tudor rose in silver ornament. A magnificent example of the art of bookbinding, it also represents important early English translations of the Bible. Parts of the Bible are worn -- you can see it was used. A remarkable provenance, it's truly quite special.

What is your dream acquisition for the collection?
It would be wonderful to have another portrait of Queen Elizabeth. We have one -- the Plimpton Sieve portrait -- but I would love to have another. Elizabeth had her portrait done many, many times and they are such wonderful paintings.

What is the most unusual object in your collection -- something people are surprised to find there?
There is a remarkable chair made for the Shakespearean actor David Garrick -- a huge rococo design with ornate carvings. On its tall back, a medallion with the image of Garrick may possibly have been carved by William Hogarth. The chair is in the Reading Room now, but may be on display in 2005 for our Garrick show. We have many other Garrick objects in the collection, but this one is spectacular.

What is your favorite museum in Washington other than your own?
My favorite other museum is the Phillips Collection. I like its intimacy, as you move from room to room and view the collection. Like the Folger, the Phillips Collection began with a family. Both Duncan Phillips and Henry Clay Folger were collecting at the same time, and both the Phillips and the Folger are driven by their founders' passions.

Give us a great reason to visit your institution.
I encourage everyone to come see a music concert or a play, then wander into the Great Hall to see our current exhibition. You can experience art and performance in one visit. One thing that is so special about the Folger is our interest in family programs. Our Shakespeare's birthday celebration allows families to see the entire library. We are an extremely welcoming institution.

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