Much Ado About Everything

by Melissa Rodman ’18

Melissa blog photo

from Stephen H. Grant, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 104.


Railroad magnate-turned bibliophile Henry E. Huntington declined countless interviews during his lifetime, suggesting instead that his legacy would remain through his extensive collection on playwright William Shakespeare: “This library will tell the story.”[1] Yet Huntington’s story often plays second fiddle to the founding and development of the Folger Shakespeare Library, compiled and curated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Huntington’s contemporaries, the American husband-wife literati duo Henry C. Folger and Emily Jordan Folger.

The Folger Shakespeare Library—and its founders’ mission, philosophy regarding the humanities, obsession with Shakespeare, and compulsive collecting practices—represents one of many philanthropic arts institutions I am investigating this summer while working on the “Mapping Cultural Philanthropy” project at Dumbarton Oaks. The project ultimately will pinpoint the manifold arts and cultural institutions in and around Washington, D.C., situating these museums and libraries physically on an interactive, online map and intellectually in the context of their benefactors’ varying visions of cultural philanthropy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While Huntington’s collection cropped up in my research solely in comparison to the Folgers’ library, his presence in that narrative echoes several themes that weave through this cultural philanthropic landscape: (1) balancing the collector’s interest with his/her intent for the public; (2) carving a niche for oneself and one’s collection in relation to other collectors, either at the individual or the national level; and (3) making ethical judgment calls in the face of cultural heritage claims and often dubious acquisition practices.

First, why begin collecting? Put simply, many of the collectors featured in the “Mapping Cultural Philanthropy” project—Duncan Phillips, Charles L. Freer, Huntington, and Folger—were Gilded Age industrial tycoons who had the financial means to do so. But beyond that simplistic explanation, their stories look remarkably similar. Art, whether contemporary paintings, Asian vases, or Shakespearean folios, enriched these collectors’ lives. Yes, the competitive game of possession did fuel their desires. But it appears that making much ado about a single item kept some of them going, focusing their attention and stoking their humanity. Some philanthropically-minded collectors thought that building collections would enable the public to have similar experiences by interacting with their carefully chosen pieces. For others, like Arthur M. Sackler, collecting mattered only so long as his name was attached to (read: engraved on) the building.

Next, what to collect? Some, like upstart William Wilson Corcoran, collected art with an eye toward cultivating “good taste” for oneself. Others, like the Folgers, gravitated toward areas of study that had interested them academically while at college. Still others, like Dumbarton Oaks’s own Robert and Mildred Bliss and collectors in the twenty-first century, scouted meticulously for items that would appreciate in value as the years went by and their collections continued to grow.

And finally, where do the ethics of acquiring objects fit into the picture? From ongoing repatriation debates surrounding the Elgin Marbles to the questionable origins of some pieces in the Harvard Art Museums, questions about ethics continue to shape, direct, and modify the art world today. Huntington’s and the Folgers’ collections, in California and Washington, D.C., respectively, are comprised of British folios. Freer dedicated his life to art from the Far East, yet the gallery he designed with exacting instructions and its contents remain in D.C. Triangulating the roles of collector, intended viewing public, and provenance becomes “the story” each of these cultural philanthropic institutions leave readers to ponder.

—Melissa Rodman is a junior at Harvard College and a senior staff writer at The Harvard Crimson. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

[1] Stephen H. Grant, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 127.


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