The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Exhibition transformations

It’s that time of year again: for two weeks every four months or so, the Folger’s Great Hall locks its doors and transforms from one exhibition into the next. Or, perhaps that’s how it seems to Folger visitors and readers and staff who are barred from the space and have to wait to see the next show. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind those closed, locked doors, let me give you a little glimpse . . .

sign at entrance to the Great Hall

The old exhibition, the one that’s coming off view—we take that down on the very first day. Cases are unlocked, books are unstrapped from their exhibit mounts, facsimiles and labels are gathered up, and everything returns to its home back on the shelves, in the drawers, into the archives. Then the work begins.

installation begins

Rugs get rolled up, tables and trash cans are brought in, and conservation comes down from the lab armed with hammers and nail guns, drills, magnets, and lots of tiny triangles of plastic vivak. We move rare materials into their new homes—Case 2, Case 8, the pilaster before Case 5—and we work off the plans we drew up months ago, during Case Layouts, to arrange each case into a neat array of rare materials on view.

placing items in the case

Those loud noises you hear from the Reading Room? Nail guns and hammering most likely, or the rolling ladder chattering its way across the uneven tiles so that we can hang wall panels.

using a nail gun to fix labels in the case
Folger conservators place exhibition items in a case
wheeling the ladder through the Hall

Once everything is in place, the lighting must be fixed, and small adjustments made here or there. Each label has to be just-so, of course.

adjusting labels

At the midway point, loans from other institutions arrive. Each lender’s contract is different, but many require a courier to accompany the loan material and supervise installation. We measure light levels, temperature, and humidity, and when those levels meet the approval of the lender and everything is where it needs to be, we close and seal the case with the courier present, and—in many cases—we are contractually obligated not to open it again until the installation comes down and the courier is present once again.

The exhibition currently being installed is Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible. This NEH-funded exhibition is a collaborative effort with the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. A total of fourteen institutions or individuals have lent material to be on display in this exhibition, with several more contributing facsimiles. Each loan, each facsimile, each Folger artifact, each panel on the wall has a specific place in the show, and directing that choreography is one of the most gratifying parts of my job as Exhibitions Manager. A result of two years of work by curators, conservators, designers, and editors, this exhibition finally materializes into something tangible in a two-week flurry of constant activity. I love the “curtain-up” moment when we sweep up the dust, roll the rugs back out, turn on the lights, and open the doors.

I hope you’ll come by and see the show, which opens to the public on September 23. We’ve got some amazing stuff to see—early biblical manuscripts, a Bishop’s Bible that probably belonged to Elizabeth I, a “Wicked” Bible with a misprinted commandment, association Bibles from a people as disparate as a sixteenth-century traveler and Elvis Presley, and even a stake for burning heretics.

replica of a stake for burning heretics


“Manifold Greatness” will be on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library from September 23 through January 15. From February 28 through June 2, the exhibit will be at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. You can learn more about the King James Bible on the exhibition’s website and on its blog. A traveling exhibition has also been made possible by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.


  • Have you ever seen a book in one of the exhibition cases and thought you’d like to examine it? If it’s from the Folger’s collection, and if you’re a reader, of course you can. I was delighted to learn the circulation desk has loose-leaf binders with the call numbers of all the books included in past exhibitions. It’s a wonderful way to spend one’s time in the reading room!

    • That’s a nice point. I always like to see if there’s an exhibition label in the back of a book I’m looking at, but it hadn’t occurred to me to go at it from the other way around!

  • I’m excited to be the guest curator for the smaller show, which is an offshoot of this exhibit, that will be visiting libraries around the country. It has the same title and will be at Hope College in Holland, MI during March 2012. The Folger/Bodleian/Ransom Center curators will provide us with text panels, and I will be selecting books from Hope’s Special Collections to complement the narrative and writing display text to go along with them. I was guest curator of The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition with the Public Museum of Grand Rapids and Israel Antiquities Authority, and I absolutely love this work. If you will be in Michigan in March, plan to come see the exhibit. We’re the only midwestern venue!

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