I had the opportunity to discuss the connection between museum and space to my seminar class by looking at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. It revealed a strong understanding of museum space and how it is more than what you physically see; the space need to be functional, serve a purpose, and support its surrounding communities. The Folger Shakespeare settles comfortably into Capitol Hill with its notable neighbours: The Library of Congress, The Capitol Building, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Its interior evokes an Elizabethan homestead to reflect the vast collection consisting of not only Shakespearean literature, but also his contemporary writers, art, poetry, costumes, stage props, ceramics, and much more. The outward appearance doesn’t visually compete with its surrounding Capitol Hill environment, but instead compliments its doorstep with a white marbled exterior.
This library brought the beginning of a cultural insight and explorations not available before for the nation’s people. Washington D.C. was the last choice that Henry Folger had for opening his library. In the 1920’s, there was a push to put Washington D.C. on the map alongside notable European cities and Mr. Folger saw an opportunity to be patriotic and give back to the country. His collection is the most extensive of its kind and has fostered some of the greatest research done in the field of the early modern world.
It was exciting for me to hear what English students thought about having a collection of materials, all originally from their country, situated in the Capitol of the United States of America. Seeing as there is much debate with English Heritage being taken to other countries, it surprised me that it wasn’t something that was brought up in discussion. Rather, they indicated they were not impressed with the oak panelling inside the building. Before presenting, I had never taken the chance to think about how someone from England, or any other European country for that matter, would perceive the library’s interior on their visit. It does call forth the similar interior design you could find in many parts of the United Kingdom. However, I argue that it is an awe-inspiring vision to see an American man who felt compelled enough to create a temple for an English author he never met, let alone a library he never saw completed.
Investigating the connection between the Folger Shakespeare Library’s mission and the physical spaces helped better define how these two aspects depend on each other. The presentation revealed how museum space can go beyond what we usually think of as a museum. This museum has the advantage of creating a living, working collection. The Folger Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Theatre provides a setting to present the works of Shakespeare and his contemporary authors and artists. It supports music, poetry, writing, performance, and other relevant practices to educate its audience on the early modern world. They have been able to successfully uphold their mission to “advance understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s writings and the culture of the early modern world” by putting it into action for its audiences. It is one thing to read Shakespeare’s work and it’s another to see it in front of you. Shakespearean actors learn about their character’s struggles and motivation by getting on their feet and working through the rich text Shakespeare has left behind. The depth and breadth of his plays has left us completely engrossed and has driven us to discover new aspects of his work even today. Not only are revelations created in the words themselves, but they are found in the vocal patterns, the emphasis of letters and sounds, and the rhythm between actors on stage.
Lastly, a very important component of this institution was its use of education practice. While there is a dedicated educational centre across the street from the main building, the education program has seeped into virtually every space of the library. From the theatre to the front steps of the library, they break down the intimidation of not only Shakespeare’s work, but the building itself to encourage others to examine Shakespeare without fear. They have instigated programs for students ages 5-18 that gets them on their feet and working with the texts. They believe the best way of learning Shakespeare is doing Shakespeare.
During the class discussion, a student asked if I felt Shakespeare would still be important in years to come, to which I couldn’t help but gush over how his work has already been important the last 400 years. Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into over 60 languages (including Klingon, the language from the TV series Star Trek) and has played an irreplaceable role in language, politics, education and art. It is suffice to say that Shakespeare’s role in classrooms is invaluable and has been made so through the reputation and location the Folger Shakespeare Library- in one of the most powerful cities in the world.