As Hamlet would say, “the rest is silence” in Stratford-upon-Avon. In January, with fewer tourists around, Shakespeare’s Birthplace closes for two weeks to catch up on conservation.
The team at Shakespeare’s Birthplace worked hard to clean out every damned spot from the collection in preparation for a new display about the mythology around Shakespeare, which is now open to visitors.
Museums Journal spoke to Emily White, the curator at the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, about the conservation project and how it offered a chance to explore a different side of the legendary playwright.
What objects are in the new display?
This year we’re focusing on one particular narrative, which is linked to the Falcon Inn chair. The folklore story is that a group of men known in Bidford-on-Avon challenged the men of Stratford-upon-Avon to a drinking contest, and Shakespeare took them up on that. People believed that the chair was sat on by Shakespeare while he drank at the Falcon Inn in Bidford-upon-Avon.
Apparently Shakespeare got a little bit worse for wear and he had to sleep off the effects overnight under a crab tree. This legend became so prominent that the crab tree became a tourist attraction in its own right. People would cut off pieces to take home as a souvenir, and make little pieces of memorabilia. Eventually there was only a stump left of this tree.
We’ve got a lovely piece of the crab tree, with a note attached to it from the person who was given it in 1824.
We also have two new acquisitions in the display case, one of which is a beautiful cross that was made of oak from Shakespeare’s Birthplace. In 2022 we acquired a miniature version of the Falcon Inn Chair made out of oak from Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised. We actually purchased it from Etsy, believe it or not!
How do you prepare a 400-year-old chair for display?
The first step is the condition report. We check that it could withstand at least a year on display, because putting a chair of that age and that prominence on display is a risk in itself. Dust can harbour pollutants – pollen, for example, and also pollutants from traffic from being in a town – that can damage a piece of furniture. We’ve cleaned it using a conservation grade detergent, and that removes any dust that we can’t remove using natural fibre brushes.
We do ask visitors not to handle the furniture, but people like to handle things. It’s just a risk of being a house open to the public. We have thousands of visitors through Shakespeare’s Birthplace every year, and if everyone touched the chair then the oil from their hands would build up to such a degree that it would damage the furniture.
So, we might have to clean up any oil deposits that have built up. We might choose to put a coat of protective wax over the top as well, to give it a little bit of extra protection.
We have to make sure that the interpretation is legible. We take our knowledge of the collections for granted, but sometimes you have to take a step away and put yourself in the visitor’s point of view.
We’ve chosen to display the chair on a plinth, which gives a little bit of separation, so that you understand that this is an object that is precious which you shouldn’t touch. It makes people aware that this is a special chair.
How do these objects enhance our understanding of Shakespeare?
We are in the second year of a three-year project about the Women Who Made Shakespeare, and that’s given us an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done in the past and our approach. It’s made us question ourselves.
There have been lots of myths, legends and stories focusing on Shakespeare from the 1700s onwards, which is when you get a resurgence in his popularity. People wanted to know more about Shakespeare as a man, not just as a playwright. These mythological stories tried to make him as human as possible.
The Falcon Inn chair has been on display before, but it hadn’t been fully interpreted. It’s a new opportunity to tell a different story.