How the First Folio tour came together

The First Folio Tour at Amherst College
First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare opening reception at the Mead Art Museum. May 9, 2016. Photo by Maria Stenzel.

On a typical book tour, authors travel to read from their work, sign copies, and give talks. But what if the author has been dead for 400 years?

During 2016, the Folger Shakespeare Library has been sending a copy of the First Folio, one of the world’s most important and influential books, to every state, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC. The traveling exhibition First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare is part of The Wonder of Will, the Folger’s celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare.

“It’s thrilling to take this precious resource out of our vaults and on the road to share with people everywhere, from San Diego, California, to Portland, Maine, from Eugene, Oregon, to Duluth, Minnesota,” said Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. “We’re excited to be part of the many different ways that American communities across the country are celebrating Shakespeare.”

When the Folger Shakespeare Library opened in 1932, founders Henry and Emily Folger intended it as a gift to the American people, which is why they chose to locate it a block from the US Capitol. This year, 18 of the First Folios so diligently acquired by the Folgers have been traveling across the country to 23 museums, 20 universities, five public libraries, three historical societies, and a theater.

The First Folio: The book that gave us Shakespeare

Why is the First Folio so essential? It is, as the exhibition title’s puts it, the book that gave us Shakespeare, the single book most responsible for what we know about Shakespeare’s plays today.

Seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, two friends from his acting company published 36 of his plays—almost all of them—in the First Folio. It is the first source for 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, which might otherwise have been lost. Can you imagine a world without “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”? Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, The Tempest—they were all preserved in the First Folio.

The Folger owns 82 of the 235 surviving copies of the First Folio, by far the largest holding in the world.

First Folio title page

How it all came together

Mounting a “book tour” of this magnitude was no easy task; planning began years in advance.

Working with the American Library Association and Cincinnati Museum Center, the Folger created an application process and then reviewed hundreds of potential applicant sites to host the First Folio before making the final selection. All were required to meet specific environmental and security requirements.

“What has delighted me most about working on the First Folio tour is the enthusiastic response we received from the host sites,” said Daniel De Simone, Eric Weinmann Librarian at the Folger. “Each application contained ideas for including scholars, students, and theater lovers in programs that celebrated the life and work of the Bard. It was so exciting to read about all these ideas that come from across the country and reinforced our view that this was exactly the right program and the right time.”

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for the passion expressed in the applications and the imaginative ways in which different communities wanted to engage with Shakespeare, the First Folio, and the Folger,” said Caroline Bedinger, the Folger’s director of special events and visitor relations, who served on the application review panel.

Related: The First Folio tour: How American communities celebrated Shakespeare in 2016

Lacking an author to promote his work, the book tour combined these diverse, highly engaging public events with a specially designed traveling panel exhibition and additional interactive digital content. The panels prominently feature actors in Shakespearean roles, from well-known performers to actors in a wide range of productions.

First Folio tour panels

“We wanted tour visitors to immediately connect with the Shakespeare they know and love,” said Clint White, president of WiT Media, whose agency designed the panels. “By featuring performances from stage and film of some of his most memorable characters, from Iago to Cleopatra, Puck to Romeo and Juliet, we’re capturing the energy and excitement of seeing a Shakespeare play today, before connecting visitors with the source of that delight, an almost 400-year-old book.”

The Cincinnati Museum Center exhibits department built and prepared the panels for travel, as well as designing and constructing the books’ traveling cases and providing tour management support.

“Things like the square footage of a venue, the width of doors, ceiling heights, ease of maintenance, and the availability of the staff and the right equipment to move crates, install panels, and set up the display case affected our decisions,” said Sloane Whidden, registrar and exhibitions manager for the Folger. “In the end we have a lightweight and nimble exhibition that looks great in every space.”

Caring for First Folios on the road

Installing the First Folio in Nebraska.
Installing the First Folio in Nebraska.

Folger conservators worked hard to keep the First Folios safe from harm in their travels about the country.

“The main focus is how to pack it, which materials to use, and how to display it on arrival,” explains Renate Mesmer, the Folger’s head of conservation. “Since every First Folio is different, we needed to make sure that each time a courier displayed the book, opened to Hamlet, that everything fit correctly.”

Mesmer and her staff created a custom-sized travel box for each Folio, which fits inside a waterproof bag made for that Folio as well. The bag, in turn, travels within a crate filled with more than eight kinds of packing material. Although the box and the bag each take about 30 minutes to create, the testing required to choose the right material lasted months.

When each book arrives at its destination, it is readied for display by one of the trained First Folio couriers—Folger and Cincinnati Museum Center staff. While a traveling author is usually checked into a local hotel for the night, the arriving First Folio is supported by a specially built structure called a cradle, displayed within a case.

Each of the cradles (much like the transporting bag and box) must be custom-built for a particular First Folio. Folger conservators took about an hour to make a series of very precise measurements for each book. These are then used to create a pattern for the cradle. Fabricating the cradle takes another two to three hours.

The First Folios, which are displayed open to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, must be opened at the right angle, not more than 100 degrees, so that the spine does not take on too much strain. Ledges on the cradle provide extra protection as well. Conservators designed the cradles to allow the public to see the book’s contents without being distracted, while still fully supporting the First Folio.

Related: Shakespeare’s First Folio: The playlist


The First Folios are returning home!

First Folio exhibitionSee the books at the Folger in First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour. This exhibition, which runs Nov 19, 2016 – Jan 22, 2017, is the largest ever display of First Folios in a single venue.

Forty-three thousand miles later, and safely back in the Folger’s Great Hall, the 18 traveling copies of the First Folio (and one understudy) tell their stories–of the half million people they met, the programming to celebrate their visits, the unique attributes of each book, and the overwhelming relevance of the plays they include.

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