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Folger Shakespeare Library ‘Letting in the Light’

“Letting in the light” has become both a literal and figurative goal for Capitol Hill’s Folger Shakespeare Library this summer.

The world’s largest Shakespeare collection is undergoing a renovation that will expose some of its exhibits to natural daylight for the first time in decades. Construction work has closed the library’s Great Hall to visitors through Sept. 30, but proved to be an illuminating experience for curators.

The renovations “let a lot of light in for us as staff to see that utilizing smaller spaces can be a really meaningful way to showcase exhibits,” said Garland Scott, head of external relations for the library. “In an odd way, something that has been a challenge to work through turned into a really rewarding experiment.”

The small nook adjacent to the West entrance of the building that used to display gift shop T-shirts now hosts a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works signed by Nelson Mandela in 1977 during his time as a political prisoner at Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.

Mandela and 33 of his fellow prisoners signed their names next to passages in the book, documenting their shared knowledge of the playwright’s work. Mandela’s chose a piece from “Julius Caesar,” signing beside the line: “Cowards die many times before their deaths: The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Scott said Mandela’s declining health and President Barack Obama’s late June visit to Robben Island during his tour of Africa increased interest in the exhibit.

“It’s a great way of encountering that book as a single artifact,” she said. Accompanying the signed volume is a series of sketches Mandela made in the early 2000s, reflecting on his prison life.

The Great Hall renovation also inspired curators to transform the Founder’s Room, a wood-paneled chamber lined with cushioned benches and chairs that normally serves as a reading area for patrons, into an exhibit.

Featuring stained glass windows and an ornamental fireplace, Scott says the room has been part of library tours for a while, “but having it as an exhibition space has been so enlightening for us.” Early Shakespeare folios, art and manuscripts are among the treasures on display.

District literary buffs might be interested to read notes about the founders, including why Henry and Emily Folger decided to locate the library at 201 East Capitol St. SE.

“The Folgers’ decision to build their library near the United States Capitol was affirmation of Henry’s belief, explained by Emily, that ‘the poet [Shakespeare] is one of our best sources, one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope,’” according to one quote from the display.

Both the Robben Island-signed Shakespeare volume exhibit and the Folger Founders Room are free to the public and on display through the end of September. Scott said additional renovation work on the building’s central air system makes the museum a “great oasis” for Capitol visitors touring the Hill over the next few weeks.

On Oct. 1, Folger’s Great Hall will reopen with renovated windows and shades designed to shield exhibits from ultraviolet rays, plus new display cases and enhanced lighting. The adjoining Folger Theatre kicks off its 2013-14 season with “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Aaron Posner, on Oct. 15.

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