Did you ever wonder why or how we borrow items to show in our exhibitions at the Folger? Let’s use the upcoming “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers, 1500-1700,” opening on February 2, 2012, as an example. My colleague Caryn Lazzuri and I have been working on this exhibition for almost two years. As the curator of this exhibit, I’ll begin by talking about why we borrow, and Caryn will follow up on the “how” in her role as Exhibitions Manager.
The exhibition highlights English, French, and Italian women writers from the early modern period, but we wanted to frame it using the viewpoint of Virginia Woolf, who famously wrote of the difficulties Renaissance women faced as writers when she imagined Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Since the Folger itself does not collect Woolf, our first stop was at our friendly next-door-neighbor, the Library of Congress. There we identified first editions of A Room and of The Second Common Reader (1932), in which Woolf wrote about one of our early women, Lady Anne Clifford.
Later in the planning stage, I was trying to show examples of works by early Italian women who had responded to the popular chivalric epics Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516) and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1581). While the Folger owns several of these responses by Moderata Fonte, Margherita Sarrocchi, and Laura Terracina, I realized that we were missing Lucrezia Marinella’s L’Enrico (1635). We have two other works by Marinella but not her epic. Harvard came to the rescue, agreeing to lend their copy of this story about one of the heroes of the Venetian wars against the Turks.
Sometimes a private collector offers to lend an item they own because of their interest in the exhibition. We were fortunate to have such an offer this time. It’s a lovely rare edition of poetry by Marguerite de Navarre, titled Marguerites de la Marguerite des Princesses (1549) or “Pearls by the Pearl of Princesses.” This is a volume which the Folger has never been able to acquire, but it is one of the most important sixteenth-century books by a French woman writer.
Occasionally, we may have a copy of a book at the Folger, but the copy at another institution has extra qualities which make it more interesting. Lady Elizabeth Cary’s translation of The Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinall of Perron to the most excellent King of Great Britaine (1630) is a good example. Copies printed in France were sent to England, where it was allegedly burned upon arrival by order of the archbishop of Canterbury, who found the Catholic position offensive. However, Cary had access to at least six copies which she annotated and dedicated to Queen Henrietta Maria of England. The Beinecke Library at Yale is lucky to own one of these special copies, which they graciously agreed to lend.
I could go on—and we are enormously grateful to our many lenders—but it’s time for Caryn to tell her part of the story: the “how” of borrowing.
As Georgianna notes, we borrow for any number of reasons, and the first step after the curator has identified potential loans for an exhibition is to ask the lender. The initial query is often informal, and then—given a positive response to that inquiry—I will follow up with a formal letter of request and provide the lender with all the details of our exhibition space. There are standards for display conditions set down by the American Association of Museums (AAM), and we follow the recommendations for paper, books, and art, which include low light levels, cool temperatures, and relative humidity around 45-50%.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to lenders—we want our own materials displayed in this book-friendly environment as well—but lenders need to approve of our environmental conditions, as well as understand the mechanics of our display cases and our security regulations, before they will agree to send their artifact into our care. The AAM’s Standard Facility Report asks for plenty of other information, too, including the likelihood of natural disasters in a given geographic region. (Think about this: if you owned a collection of fine porcelains, would you send them to an earthquake-prone zone?) Lenders have to take all these things into consideration when they determine whether or not to loan an object.
Lenders and borrowers must then agree on the monetary value of the item being borrowed, and agree upon who will cover its insurance while it is away from its home institution (most often, this is the borrower’s responsibility).
Once the loan has been formally approved, I begin the process of getting it from its home to the Folger. For especially valuable items, the lender will usually request the services of a Fine Arts shipping company, who will measure the item and build a custom crate for it to travel in, and then transport it in a special-delivery truck. Sometimes a courier representative from the lending institution will travel with the item and oversee its installation, sometimes not. Loans do fly on occasion, although this is often not the preferred method of transport. If it is a very special hand-carry item that comes by air, the loan may even get its own seat on the plane.
For Shakespeare’s Sisters, we don’t have any of these special air-mail loans, but in the two week period during which we take down Manifold Greatness and install Shakespeare’s Sisters, we will have a carefully choreographed dance of loans coming out under the supervision of couriers sent from lending institutions; loans picked up by art handlers, across-town couriers, or simply the mailman for a return trip home; and new loans arriving by the same variety of methods. And all this happens in the midst of the Folger’s own material being carefully cradled and brought down from the conservation lab, one book truck at a time.
It is certainly worth the paperwork and careful coordination it takes to bring in loans that enhance and support the Folger’s own collection and help us tell a more complete story with our exhibitions. We’re very grateful to all our lenders, and thrilled to be displaying their objects side-by-side with our own.