by Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
Henry Clay Folger and Emily Jordan Folger were great collectors of Shakespeare in the early 20th century. Believing that Shakespeare represented a foundation of American thought and that the treasures they collected should be shared with the nation, the Folgers founded Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The Library opened in 1932. Sadly, Henry died shortly after the groundbreaking in 1930 and did not live to see the completion of his dream. Emily shepherded the Library through its early years and helped establish it as a world-famous collection of Shakespeare and his world.
Each year, the Library celebrates the Folgers’ vision by hosting a Birthday Open House, inviting the public to come in and share the experience. For the past few years, volunteer docents Michael Neuman and Robin Millay have played the roles of Henry and Emily Folger at the Birthday, welcoming visitors to “their” library and sharing the Folgers’ story. In those roles, they share their story with you.
When Emily and I hold open house at the Folger Shakespeare Library on the Sunday we celebrate Shakespeare’s
birthday, our guests note some discrepancy between our appearance and the stately figures depicted in F.O. Salisbury’s portraits of us in the Paster Reading Room or, in my case, the idealized bust in the exhibition hall sculpted by John Gregory. Nevertheless, visitors both young and old welcome the opportunity to address us as Henry and Emily, and they enjoy pretending that we have invited them personally into our private quarters called the Founders’ Room.
Ordinary docents dispense colorful, reliable information, while visitors listen and sometimes interact. And it’s true that Emily and I sometimes hold forth overmuch. But when we invite our guests to ask us questions about our backgrounds, the library we built, or the collection we amassed, they’re generally not embarrassed that they are not experts themselves.
They ask basic, honest questions: “Are you related to the coffee Folgers?” (“Yes, Uncle James went West during the Gold Rush . . . .”) “How did you both get interested in Shakespeare?” (“Do you mean before we met one another, shortly after college, at that meeting of the Irving Literary Circle when we recited Shakespeare?”).
Sometimes Emily and I, turning from our guests to the features of the Founders’ Room, ask the questions, such as the identity of any of those twelve Shakespearean characters depicted in the stained glass windows by Nicola D’Ascenzo. (“Right. That’s Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.”) By contrast to the two of us, a docent is an expert; his or her questions might be stimulating, but they can be intimidating. In the context of pretending and performing , however, the atmosphere is playful, stakes are less high, and visitors might respond to a question by venturing an educated guess.
On the basis of our experience, Emily and I think that teachers might generate increased levels of engagement if they occasionally appear as “distinguished guests” in their own classrooms: a famous scholar of Shakespeare, a great director of the play being studied, or a character stepping forth from the pages of the Folger paperback edition. The Bard himself? (Maybe you need a floppy hat for that one.) A teacher who plays a role is risking embarrassment, and students know it. But in that context, the pressure is manageable for a student who simply asks an honest question of the distinguished guest.
Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger, Manager of Visitor Education programs at Folger Shakespeare Library is a full-time Shakespeare geek who loves nothing more than talking about the Bard and the Early Modern period. She is lucky enough to manage the docent program at the Folger.
Robin Millay and Mike Neuman are Folger docents who occasionally portray Emily Jordan Folger and Henry Clay Folger at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday.