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Hark! The Folger Shakespeare Library Reopens This Friday After an $80 Million Expansion.

The expansion includes two new public exhibitions dedicated to rare books and to the Bard himself.

A garden path, where you'll find a poem by Rita Dove, commissioned by the Folger Shakespeare Library, leading visitors down into the west entrance of the building. Photograph by Lloyd Wolf.

“Clear your calendars. Pocket your notes”: So begins a Rita Dove poem beside a new garden path that leads visitors away from the official world of Capitol Hill and into the soon-to-reopen Folger Shakespeare Library. There, as Dove puts it, “the jumbled perfumes of our human potpourri / waft up from a single page.”

The library has been closed since 2020 and finally reopens to the public this Friday, June 21, following a $80.5 million expansion that’s intended to make the building more accessible and welcoming—hence the English-style garden paths filled with flowers referenced in Shakespeare’s plays, which flank two new public entrances on the west and east sides of the library.

The eye-catching gardens are far from the most notable change at the neoclassical building, which first opened in 1932. The Folger, home to the largest Shakespeare collection in the world, excavated earth below the building and renovated what was previously its basement to create space for two new exhibition halls that span 12,000 square feet. Now it finally has more room to display its treasures.

Inside the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall, where 82 of the Folger’s first folios are on display. Photograph by Alan Karchmer.

The Shakespeare Exhibition Hall and the Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall are the first spaces that will greet visitors after they enter through the new, wheelchair-accessible entrances. 

Inside the hall devoted to the Bard, you’ll find what’s arguably the Folger’s most prized collection—its First Folios, which are among the earliest published collections of Shakespeare’s plays. For the first time, all 82 copies of the Folger’s first folios will be displayed together. Accompanying them is a newly built re-creation of a 17th-century printing press, along with artifacts and objects that show how people have engaged with Shakespeare’s work throughout the centuries. 

Inside the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall, a girl looks upon a drawing of Ira Aldridge, the first Black actor to play Othello, in 1853. Photograph by Lloyd Wolf.

Nearby, the Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall will display a diverse assortment of literary artifacts taken from the Folger’s collection of roughly 350,000 items.

The expansion “allows us to have a place to really show some of the amazing things in the collection,” says Folger’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions Greg Prickman, who points out a 15th-century copy of The Canterbury Tales, along with a 16th century Dowland lute book. “The material that the Folger holds gets used in the reading room by scholars, and it’s studied extensively,” Prickman says, “but we always wanted to share it with a broader audience.”

“Imprints in Time” is the first special exhibition in the Rose Exhibition Hall. It features rare books from the Stuart Rose Collection. Photograph by Lloyd Wolf.

On the other end of the rare books hall is space that will be dedicated to temporary exhibits. The first is called “Imprints in Time,” and it features rare books borrowed from collector Stuart Rose, who has a penchant for finding copies of books with personal ties to their authors. Some of the exhibit’s rarities include early proofs of The Lord of the Rings with J.R.R. Tolkien’s hand-written corrections, a first trade edition of Winnie-the-Pooh that’s bears the signature of A. A. Milne dedicating the copy to his son, and a signed first edition of Galileo’s Dialogo, which had been banned for defending Copernicus’s view of the solar system. The exhibit will be on display through January 5, 2025.

The “Into the Vault” gallery, located inside the Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall. Photograph by Lloyd Wolf.

Other new features of the renovation include an expanded gift shop and upgrades to accessibility, including inside the Folger’s 6,000-square-foot Elizabethan theater, where the fall season will kick off with Romeo and Juliet.

A new cafe named Quill & Crumb will also open later this year inside the Great Hall, which still bears its ornate oak paneling and ornamental floor tile. When the cafe opens, you can expect a variety of sandwiches and tartines, from smoked salmon to blackberry and ricotta, along with pastries, such as an apricot turmeric tea cake and a lavender blackberry financier. A full service bar and light bites will also be available in the evening.

Admission to the Folger Shakespeare Library is free, though a donation of $15 per person is encouraged. It will be open from 11 AM to 6 PM on Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Sundays and from 11 AM to 9 PM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. To ensure entry into the building, the library recommends reserving timed-entry passes prior to visiting.

A 17th-century replica of a printing press sits inside the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall. Photograph by Elman Studio.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor