‘We’re going to find the next Shakespeare’: inside DC’s $80m library renovation

<span>At the heart of the exhibition hall are the Folger’s crown jewels: its 82 copies of the First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays.</span><span>Photograph: Alan Karchmer</span>
At the heart of the exhibition hall are the Folger’s crown jewels: its 82 copies of the First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays.Photograph: Alan Karchmer

When Owen Dodson cast Earle Hyman as Hamlet in a production at Howard University, one of America’s historically Black colleges and universities, they sought a meeting with the British actor John Gielgud, who happened to be touring Washington at the time. Racial segregation laws decreed that they could only lunch at the city’s central bus station. Still, despite the unglamorous venue, the trio happily discussed the play.

Related: ‘He queered the hell out of it’: the man behind Shakespeare’s same-sex love sonnets

Dodson’s 1951 production was widely acclaimed. A positive New York Times review, headlined Negro players present “Hamlet”, found that Hyman’s “reading shows a strong Gielgud influence”. The 25-year-old embarked on a distinguished career, becoming the first African American actor to play the big four Shakespearean roles of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear and Othello, and featuring in the TV series ThunderCats and The Cosby Show.

Reviews of his Hamlet – and a bust of Hyman as Othello – are on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the world’s biggest William Shakespeare collection, which reopens on Capitol Hill in Washington on Friday after a four-year, $80.5m renovation with a new emphasis on cultural and racial inclusivity.

Visitors to the flagship Shakespeare exhibition hall are greeted by an installation by the contemporary Black artist Fred Wilson. In God me such uses send, Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend (a quotation from Othello), a black glass mirror is displayed in conversation with the Folger’s 1579 “Sieve” portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

Michael Witmore, outgoing director of the Folger, says: “It’s an iconic portrait that was done from life, with Elizabeth wearing her austere, leaden white makeup, and so Fred’s piece frames that portrait and then draws you in so that, as you become curious, we would like to rotate you so that you encounter this portrait.

“This is really a dialogue between past and present. The contrast between the depth of this black mirror and the white face makeup of Elizabeth as she looks at you with her imperious gaze, designed to fix you where you are.”

An engraving of the 19th-century Black actor Ira Aldridge is also displayed in the gallery, along with some lines from Othello, act III, scene 3, that he wrote out by hand. Aldridge overcame racial barriers to forge a successful theatrical career, winning international acclaim and becoming the first Black actor to play Othello in Britain.

A nearby Who was Shakespeare? exhibition includes an information panel that would not have fit political sensibilities when the Folger opened in 1932: “When Shakespeare was writing his plays, England was colonizing this land that we are currently standing on – land that has long been inhabited by people of the Nacotchtank, Piscataway, Doeg, and dozens of other Indigenous groups.”

At the heart of the exhibition hall are the Folger’s crown jewels: its 82 copies of the First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, permanently displayed after being hidden in the furthest recess of the library vault for nearly a century.

Visitors will see 80 of the bound volumes lying in a purpose-built glass vault like bottles of fine wine. The other two have display cases of their own: one is open at the cover page, the other open in a scene from The Winter’s Tale. There is also a replica copy that visitors can thumb through. The gallery also offers demonstrations of a printing press modeled on those that printed the First Folio 400 years ago and artefacts including the original screenplay of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film Henry V.

But Uncle Will is given a run for his money by the inaugural show in the second public exhibition hall added to the Folger. The Imprints in Time exhibition, running until 5 January 2025, features 52 rare books from the collection of Stuart and Mimi Rose, based in Dayton, Ohio, running the gamut chronologically from an Egyptian Book of the Dead from the first century BCE to a section of the Apollo 11 flight plan that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took to the moon.

In between there is the first edition of the first work of poetry published by an African American, the enslaved Phillis Wheatley. There are first editions of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and James Joyce’s Ulysses, as well as the earliest known presentation copy of The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger and an advance press copy of Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech.

A first edition of A Tale of Two Cities is inscribed by Charles Dickens to fellow novelist George Eliot, the pseudonym of Mary Anne Evans. A first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is inscribed by Mark Twain to his wife. A manuscript of The Valley of Fear, the last Sherlock Holmes novel, shows author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s corrections. Page proofs for The Lord of the Rings are corrected in the hand of author JRR Tolkien. A first edition of Winnie-the-Pooh is inscribed by author AA Milne to his son.

Greg Prickman, the librarian and director of collections and exhibitions, says: “These objects capture these personal, intimate moments associated with the people who created them. We have one of Galileo’s works with an inscription that he wrote on the title page and then there are manuscripts, so really early forms of novels.

The scientific works alone are unmissable: a first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus (1543), which first proposed the heliocentric view of the planetary system; a first edition of the most notorious banned book of the 17th century – Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo, which defended Copernicus’s view of the solar system and was inscribed by Galileo himself; a presentation copy of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

The library now has 12,000ft of public space including a cafe, learning lab and expanded gift shop. Its gardens have also been reimagined with Shakespeare-themed flowers and poetry. A magnolia tree planted when the Folger opened had to be moved a hundred feet, an operation that took three days after nearly two years of preparation.

There is also a replica Elizabethan theatre, which next season will present Romeo and Juliet, contemporary playwright Lauren Gunderson’s A Room in the Castle (about the women of Hamlet) and Twelfth Night.

But what are the First Folios doing 3,500 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon? They were collected by the New York oil magnate Henry Clay Folger and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger, between 1893 and 1928. Their library opened in a marble building close to the US Capitol, Library of Congress and supreme court. The Washington Post called it a “Noble Shelter for Shakespeare’s Treasures”.

The Folgers’ ashes are interred in the ornate reading room, which has stained glass windows and decorative fireplaces, and will now allow the public to handle 300-year-old books (gloves not allowed). The collection includes about 277,000 printed books, 60,000 manuscripts and 90,000 graphic materials.

In valedictory remarks this week at the end of his 13-year tenure, Witmore expressed a hope that the reborn Shakespearean shrine will help inspire Bards of the future. He said: “By being in Washington and by embracing Washington DC as a city of culture, I think we returned to that very productive space that Shakespeare was working in and that his peers were working in and we’re going to find, I think, the next Shakespeare.

“She may be in our galleries this week. They may come sometime in the next five years. But they’re out there and the question for us is, what will they want to see? What do they need to hear? What do they need to do?