Big Manuscript on Campus: Rare Shakespeare book on display at Emory

There’s a new BMOC at Emory.

Big Manuscript on Campus …

“First Folio! The book that gave us Shakespeare” is a new exhibition opening Saturday at the Michael C. Carlos Museum on the Emory campus. Its centerpiece is a First Folio from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. — one of only 235 known existing copies of the book that was published in 1623, seven years after the death of the man who gave us “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and other masterpieces.

Back then, though, Shakespeare was primarily known for authoring entertaining plays that weren’t considered all that serious or timeless. Indeed, when some of his actor friends later decided to collect all of his plays into a single text, 18 of them had never before been published; without the First Folio, the world might never have known of the existence of “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar” and “The Tempest.”

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In marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the Folger, which owns 82 First Folios, has sent some on a nationwide tour this year. Emory is the only place to see it in Georgia — and no one’s taking any chances of anything happening to it between now and Dec. 11, when the Carlos exhibition closes.

The First Folio arrived at the museum on Tuesday in a FedEx “White Glove” truck, said Andi McKenzie, Associate Curator of Works on Paper at the Carlos. Along with a specially-designed display case and some panels featured in the exhibition, the folio was the only thing in the climate-controlled truck. It was escorted by a courier from the Cincinnati Museum Center, one of the Folger’s partners in organizing the tour. The courier oversaw many of the painstakingly precise details involved in putting the fragile book on display in the “First Folio” gallery at the Carlos — including opening it to the page where it will stay throughout the exhibition’s run, the one containing the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy from Act III of “Hamlet.”

The temperature in the gallery has to remain between 65 and 72 degrees at all times, and the relative humidity between 45 and 52 percent (there’s a digital monitor visible inside the display case). As part of the application process to become the Georgia tour site, the Carlos Museum had to provide “a year’s worth of (climate control) data from the gallery it would be in,” McKenzie said. There were also very specific requirements regarding lighting and security, including having a dedicated guard inside the gallery watching over “Hamlet” et al whenever the gallery is open.

But wait! We’re getting ahead of ourselves. The courier and Emory libraries collections conservator Ann Frellsen installed the First Folio in its display case in the gallery on Thursday morning. But first, “it had to rest,” McKenzie said. “That was one of the really interesting requirements. After it arrived here, the folio had to rest for 24 hours before being installed. The case had to rest, too.”

It’s all part of the precious cargo becoming acclimated to the setting and environment, explained Kirsten Wehner, an Emory libraries conservation technician. And lest you think any of this fretting and fussing is overblown, consider: The record sales price for a First Folio is $6.1 million.

For hours and prices visit Admission is free to the First Folio gallery only

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