Today the missus and I went to see Manifold Greatness at the Folger Shakespeare Library. A large introductory panel greeted us as we walked into the Folger’s magnificent space. The intro panel set the stage well for the exhibition: although it appeared to be longer than the 75-to-100 words that is usually the rule, this panel concisely summarized the importance of what we were about to see. It also told us exactly where to begin our journey. Each word was carefully chosen, and in the end not superfluous–thus the text did not seem overly long, like so many exhibition intros are.
The exhibition is laid out in several cases along the walls of the room. Each case does not just contain a random assortment of objects. As we progressed along first the left, then the right, side of the room, we learned the story of the creation of the King James Bible 400 years ago, starting with early vernacular translations, then the creation of the King James version, and finally its afterlife through the present day. Each case has a summary text panel, bringing the story along and presenting the broader context of the objects in each case. The object labels offer further insight. Taken together, this effective use of layering of information (to use the exhibition development jargon) allows visitors with little time still to get the story, while also offering opportunities to go in-depth.
Since the Folger and the other institutions that created Manifold Greatness–the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin–have largely textual holdings, most of the objects are books. Yet as they have on other exhibitions, the Folger uses these books in an engaging way. The object labels tell the visitor for what to search on the page, and its significance to the broader story. Not only that, though: the cases feature strategically-placed arrows in the books, and even close-up images of portions to which the curators want to draw our attention, like a printer’s omission of “not” from the commandment against adultery (oops).
Although I did not partake of this option, the exhibition allows visitors to use their cell phones to hear commentary from the curators and other media clips, such as the Apollo 8 astronauts reading from the King James version of Genesis as they orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. I did see others using their phones for this purpose. These are also available on the comprehensive Web site, which I plan to explore further.
As is obvious by this point, I loved this exhibition. I only have a few small quibbles. My main complaint is something that probably could not be helped: the lighting. Likely because the exhibition contains mostly rare books, the lighting was low, meaning some object labels were tough to read. Because some of the books were small, more than a few people in front of the cases made it difficult to spend any time examining them closely. Also, some object labels, such as one describing a Washington family Bible, were hard to see because of their placement.
However, those are only small quibbles. All in all, this agnostic (who loved his two undergrad Bible as Literature classes) came out of Manifold Greatness with a new appreciation for the King James Bible and its cultural significance. I felt like I learned a lot, while not feeling overwhelmed. For those in the Washington area, I strongly recommend you go see this exhibition. For those in Texas, thou shalt see it later this year. These three institutions should be complimented for creating a scholarly and engaging exhibition about an important subject. It created a Sunday afternoon well-spent.