The Folger Shakespeare Library, administered by the college, was awarded a grant in August by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for $1.5 million to fund a four-year collaborative research project called “Before Farm to Table: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures.”
The Folger Library, located in Washington D.C., houses the world’s largest collection of materials on Shakespeare and was founded posthumously in 1932 by Henry Folger and his wife Emily Folger. According to the library’s Executive Director, Kathleen Lynch, Folger, who graduated from the college in 1879, first developed an interest in the Bard after attending a lecture on Shakespeare by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Folger’s will, he left the college with administrative control over the Folger library.
The project covered by the grant will focus on using interdisciplinary research techniques and Folger’s materials to study food pathways and the strong connection between food and culture in the early modern period.
The “untapped or neglected opportunity” in the Folger collections, according to Lynch, led to a focus on food. “Food is pervasive,” Lynch said. “It’s a basic necessity for survival. But it’s also an indicator of culture and community and trade and economics. We’re demonstrating that our collections can support big questions that are not so obviously tipped off in our middle name — Shakespeare.”
While Lynch will head the initiative, three scholars — David Goldstein, Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe ’92 — will each lead a team of other academics.
“In a way, the three post-doctoral scholars will be the heart of the work, as they determine some of the emphases and products,” Lynch said. “They will have opportunities to advance their own individual research projects in the usual ways, but also to define new team products like an online edition of a play or a receipt book, a ‘mapping’ of the markets of London on a period map or a visualization of the use of certain terms — perhaps ingredients — over time.”
One project goal is to experiment with a more collaborative method of research. Rather than work as individuals each in their own discipline, the scholars will work together, creating an interdisciplinary, collaborative project.
“Our idea in the new Mellon initiative in collaborative research is to set out a big set of issues and assemble teams of scholars, each with his or her own subject expertise, to have them talk across those areas of expertise,” Lynch said. “We need to broaden the scope of scholarly conversations to bring scholars and these experts into the same conversations. We need to find new ways to bring some of the fruits of those discussions immediately out for our public audiences.”
Amherst students will also get a chance to participate in the project. The college faculty regularly conduct research at the Folger, but a fellowship exists for students as well. “In addition to Amherst faculty doing research at the Folger, there is also a fellowship for students. We partner with Amherst on an annual two-week guided fellowship for Amherst undergraduates,” Lynch said. “Each student brings a research project of their own to the program, and they have two weeks to pursue that project in consultation with Folger staff, in discussions among themselves, and above all, in explorations in the library’s collections.”
In January 2018, these fellows will learn more about the research collaborative on their annual trip to the Folger in Washington D.C.
For now, Lynch has said the focus will mainly assess the collaborative aspects of the project and how this different model might contribute to the research.
“This initiative is about taking on a new experiment and achieving a better understanding of how these forms of collaboration succeed and where they don’t, but it’s not just about that,” Lynch said. “It’s a gamble that we will come out with a richly multifaceted understanding of the food cultures and food pathways in the early modern period in such a way as to genuinely learn from the discussions across disciplines and to learn, as well, from work that will have public outcomes as goals as well as more traditional scholarly outcomes.”