Scholarship Should Be Fun, Dammit!

We are thrilled to present today’s guest blog post by Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub, co-authors of “Curating Will & Jane,” featured in Eighteenth-Century Life. The article addresses the curation of Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Here, Barchas and Straub discuss non-traditional forms of scholarship and how delightfully fun they can be to work with.

“Fun” might not be the first word that comes to mind in association with curating a serious museum exhibition for the Folger Shakespeare Library, but we have been using it a lot lately in reference to our work on Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity, opening in Washington, D.C. on 6 August 2016. Will & Jane looks at literary celebrity historically as well as in real time, focusing on the 200-year marks after the deaths of these authors to explore the processes by which two great writers became literary superheroes. At the time of this exhibition, Shakespeare logs in at 400 and Austen at 200 years, so we are witnesses to a new milestone in their fame. A solemn moment? Well, only if bobbleheads make you feel reverent. Will & Jane brings together high and low culture, juxtaposing precious art objects with the mundane and even ridiculous, to tell a story about how literary celebrity works in 200-year cycles.

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Figurines of Richard III with different actors’ faces

We are literary nerds, an Austen scholar and a theater historian working on Shakespeare in the 18th century, so our definition of fun inevitably encompasses the pleasure of historical research and discovery, and there is plenty of that in Will & Jane. As curators we were struck again and again by the parallels between the afterlives of these two very different authors. Dozens of porcelain figurines depicting Richard III in the same pose (although with three different actors’ faces) taught us an important lesson about material production and fame: repetition makes celebrity. In the 20th century, the medium shifts to the electronic, as the same repetition effect is created for Austen in the spectacle of a damp-shirted Colin-Firth-as-Darcy emerging countless times in YouTube reenactments of that famous scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which has inspired numerous spoofs and restagings.

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Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC Pride and Prejudice TV Mini-Series

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“The Shirt”

Once word got out that our exhibition would display “The Shirt” worn by Firth in the making of this scene, the New York Times and New Yorker each joined in the spirit of our exhibition, smartly making sport of the centrality of this garment to Austen fandom. Prompting, however indirectly, a satire in the New Yorker is the stuff that doth overflow any academic’s cup!

Will and Jane’s respective ascensions to literary greatness were each kicked off by media extravaganzas marking, roughly, the 200th anniversaries of their life and work. In 1769, actor and entrepreneur David Garrick organized a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1789, John Boydell opened the popular Shakespeare Gallery, the first museum dedicated to the Bard. The television “bonnet drama” of the 1990s is to Austen as these 18th-century public spectacles were to Shakespeare. Assisted by Hollywood, the BBC awarded Austen, and her characters, special star status as she approached her bicentenary. As literary historians, we take great pleasure in these moments of resemblance and the discernment of patterns in the history of literary fame.

Our scholarly desire to understand Will’s and Jane’s literary celebrities often, however, led us away from the literary, indeed, to some extent, even away from books (although books as material objects tell many fascinating stories in our exhibition). The heady rush of discerning the historical traces of celebrity in advertisements for laundry soap and gin, in household objects like rolling pins and salt and pepper shakers, in children’s games and babies’ board books definitely carried a different kind of pleasure than the traditional printed page. Standing in the vaults of the Folger and looking at shelves of what our spouses call tchotchkes and ban from our mantelpieces at home in the interests of good taste taught us a lot about material culture and celebrity, but it was also just plain fun. So was wading through hordes of Austenalia, including shoeboxes and a finger puppet of Mr. Collins as a mouse, at the Goucher College Library. Not only were plastic action figures a nice change of pace from the printed page, our research for this exhibit allowed us to indulge in a cheekiness that is usually off-limits for sober scholars. Will & Jane encouraged us in a kind of play that made us participants, performers in as well as observers of fan culture.

Naturally, our preparatory labors over the last three years leading up to the exhibition have not been utterly painless. We’ve weathered freak snow storms during site visits, endured the grit of travel and monastic accommodations, and participated in what seems like a lifetime’s worth of planning meetings, conference calls, and assessments. We’ve drafted and redrafted so many texts, promotional statements, and brochures that our waking thoughts now seem to consist entirely of label fragments. Yet, at every conference presentation or press interview our enthusiasm for this exhibition remains genuine. At a time when the Humanities are under scrutiny and so many of us cannot get jobs, we’ve been unabashedly enjoying ours. We hope that some of this joy is contagious and, with a little luck, infects even the general public.

We hope visitors to the Folger will join us in the long-running performance of literary celebrity that is Shakespeare and Austen. It is a performance about longing, about the desire to see, touch, feel, and know all there is to know—in this case about two writers about whom we actually know very little. That’s why, for 400 years in Shakespeare’s case and for 200 in Austen’s, fans have written sequels, adapted their texts into a variety of genres and media, painted portraits, and generally imagined as much as can be imagined about their personal lives and loves. If, at times, the performance tips into parody, travesty, and even kitsch—all the more fun for us and the many visitors whom we hope will join us at the Folger between August 6 and November 6, 2016.

Meanwhile, and for those who like to mix their sweet intellectual delights with scholarly fiber, take a look at our account of the exhibition just published by Duke University Press in Eighteenth-Century Life. The article “Curating Will & Jane” will prepare you for all the serious facts behind the fun.

Read the article, made freely available throughout the exhibit.

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