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October 31, 2014

Troubles Visit the Folger’s Exhibit

A current exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library that aims to highlight Irish-English relations in the 16th and 17th centuries as “more than a binary story of oppressor and oppressed,” has received strong criticism from a top Irish scholar in Washington.

Cóilín Owens, professor emeritus at George Mason University, had some harsh words for the curators of the new exhibit in a letter sent to the Irish Embassy in Washington, the two exhibit curators and the Folger Shakespeare Library itself. Owens’ letter, however, was leaked to IrishCentral.com, a website aimed at the global Irish diaspora, igniting some unintended media controversy.

In an email to HOH, the Folger initially seemed to be under the impression that Owens had sent the letter to the website himself, saying they were “perplexed” to find that Owens had taken his quarrel to the media first, rather than just to the museum directly.

Owens and a spokesperson for the Folger later confirmed to HOH that the letter was sent only to the curators, the Folger and the Irish Embassy, and that Owens did not, in fact, leak it.

In his letter, Owens claims that the exhibit rewrites history and leaves the average visitor with a biased interpretation of events. The curators “airbrush what we now call ethnic cleansing,” Owens told HOH. But he added that despite his misgivings about the exhibit, the array of items on display in the exhibit is “impressive” and said that it took no small effort to gather and present them so well.

“I have no interest in embarrassing anyone,” Owens said. However, the “selectivity of the exhibition can mislead the casual visitor into a misperception.”

The Folger website’s description of the exhibit includes the line: “Often portrayed as a country in conflict during the 16th and 17th centuries, Ireland was in fact a place of intermingling culture and adaptability.”

For a period of history that saw the erasure of “approximately 30 percent of the population of Ireland,” according to Owens, that description could unintentionally come across as
insensitive.

Brendan Kane, one of the two exhibit curators, admitted that the wording in the description was “not the best” but added that far from rewriting history, “we were seeking to add to what many people know” and that the intent was “not to deny the brutal repression of the Irish” but rather to celebrate “Irish agency and power in an otherwise bleak world.”

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