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Arts & Culture

How Boise State Prepared To Host Shakespeare’s First Folio

Adam Cotterell
Boise State Public Radio


A rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio is in Boise for a month-long exhibition at Boise State University. This 400-year-old book is the first collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. It has immense historical significance and is sought-after by collectors. Copies can sell for millions of dollars. Boise State has gone to great lengths to create a memorable experience and ensure the book’s safety.

Take the space where it will be housed. The Arts and Humanities Institute Gallery is 2,000 square feet and kind of triangular shaped. Stephanie Bacon is in charge of the gallery, along with being a Boise State art professor, co-director of the Arts and Humanities Institute and director of the Idaho Center for the Book.

Bacon says gallery managers had to install special temperature and humidity sensors that could communicate directly with the folio’s owner, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

“We have been providing them with at least a year of records of temperature and humidity readings in this space taken on an hourly basis,” Bacon says.

The Folger is putting on a national tour, sending a folio to one location in each state in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. But the Folger is extremely particular about the venues where its folios will be allowed to visit. Big swings in temperature or too much humidity could be a deal breaker. When it comes to moisture in the air, Bacon says Boise has the opposite issue.

“Our climate is just a little bit on the dry side for the folio,” she says.

But the gallery got a pass on that because the book travels in its own climate-controlled glass box.

Bacon says that specially designed display case won’t be dead center in the room. Its location was chosen by its owner, but not for ease of movement or visibility.

“The location of the folio in the room is determined by the optimum light position to protect it as much as possible,” Bacon explains. “There’s a lot of natural light in the space. It has great big windows. And those could, theoretically, allow some ultraviolet radiation in. But they’ve been recently replaced and they filter some 99 percent of ultraviolet light.”

But the Folger doesn’t take chances. The book has to be away from the windows and can never be exposed to florescent light.

Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio
The exhibit has other attractions besides the folio. It includes selections from the archives of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, like these playbills and pictures from the festival's first play in 1976. It also has rare books from the Boise-based Leroy collection.

So the university met the prerequisites. The First Folio is here for a month. That means people are needed to guide the thousands of expected visitors who will come to see it. Boise State librarian Heather Gravatt is in charge of volunteers. Gravatt recruited 50 volunteers from the university and the community. Then she had to train them to be museum docents and fill their heads with knowledge about 17th century printing and the life and works of Shakespeare.

During a July training session she quizzed her recruits in a Jeopardy-style game.

“The longest play at 4,042 lines it will also be the play the folio is open to,” Gravatt asked.

“Uh, Romeo and Juliet,” one volunteer answered but then quickly corrected herself. “Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Sorry, Hamlet Hamlet Hamlet. I knew that.”   

Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio
Can't show off a valuable artifact without velvet ropes.

All the volunteers were subject to background checks. Security is one of the areas Boise State has had to spend the most resources on. The record for a sale of a first folio is a little more than $6 million. Tana Monroe is interim director of Boise State’s Public Safety Department, which is in charge of security.

“This is something that’s been unique for us,” Monroe says. “When we first learned that we were going to be hosting this document, we contacted other universities that have done this in the past and seen what kind of security measures they had, how things went for them.”  

Monroe says her department has a lot of experience protecting important people. But those dignitaries usually come to campus for a speech or a meeting and then they leave. She says they’ve never had to guard something so valuable for so long.

One part of the security strategy is not answering specific questions about security. The folio will be guarded 24/7. But further details about that or topics like security cameras or how and when the book would arrive were off limits. She did answer one specific question. You know those laser grid things you see in movies?

“Wouldn’t that be cool?” Monroe says laughing.  “No, we’re not going to have lasers.”

As you can imagine, making this exhibit happen has taken a lot of time. Librarian Gwyn Hervochon has been on the project the longest, more than two years. Hervochon learned about the national first folio tour and decided Boise State should be part of it. She wrote up a long proposal to try to convince her dean of that. It turned out to be unnecessary because the dean was on board immediately. And Hervochon says, so was everyone at the university who needed to be.

“I really did expect to have to fight for this more to be seen as something significant and important, but immediately the president’s office was inquiring about it,” Hervochon says. “And I think when you say Shakespeare, you know, that has a bit of weight to it.”

Hervochon expects the university to spend about $75,000 on the project. The preparations have even included an overhaul of the landscaping around the Yanke Family Research Park on Parkcenter Boulevard where the gallery is located.

The First Folio exhibition, titled The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, runs from this Saturday, August 20 to September 21. Events include lectures and films. And the exhibit itself has a lot more than just the folio, though clearly it’s the star. In this case, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the book’s the thing.  

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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