Behind the scenes: preparing By me William Shakespeare

About the author: Sophie Cornell is a project producer for King’s new exhibition, By Me William Shakespeare, presented at King’s College London in partnership with The National Archives. More information on the exhibition can be found here.

BMWS digi poster

When I first heard that King’s College London and The National Archives were planning to mount an exhibition showcasing Shakespeare’s will in the year marking 400 years since his death, I was excited. Having always had a soft spot for the beauty of Shakespeare’s writing, the idea of learning more about the man himself was very appealing.

Shakespeare’s will is so precious that it can only be publicly displayed for a relatively short time, meaning I’ll probably be able to take my grandchildren to its next outing (and I don’t yet have children…). What sets this exhibition apart is that, rather than focusing on Shakespeare’s writings, we’re looking at the facts of his life, tracking him through court appearances and legal documents, as he flits across seventeenth century London.

Chased by swans

The National Archives are guarded by a flock of swans


First things first; what are we exhibiting? Cue a trip to The National Archives in Kew. Despite the swans chasing us into the building, the excitement was tangible. No white gloves (just clean hands), and very soon I was close enough to smell the Shakespeare-related scrolls, books, parchments that were laid out on a long table in front of us. Over 400 years ago, Shakespeare was reading this same document and preparing to write the signature I’ve now seen so many times.

documents being selected at the national archives

400-year old documents being viewed at The National Archives

Back to reality, and a team of around 20 people are assembled around a big white table a few weeks later. We’ve come together to look at the curatorial vision for the show and ultimately make the decision about which documents should be put on display. There are over 120 to choose from, but we’ve already whittled these down to about 15. We choose nine, carefully considering the stories behind each one and how they link into the Bard’s paper trail through London.

Over the next few months, with expert direction from our Designer, the content of the exhibition rooms slowly takes shape. Interpretive text is starting to be written, and proofs are landing in inboxes daily. It’s three months until opening and there are now over fifty people working directly on the exhibition. If you add in the contractors, it’s over 100.

It’s January, and there are four weeks until the exhibition opens, but just two weeks until we start installing. We sign off on the majority of the texts for the walls, and they are sent to the printers where each letter will be individually cut from vinyl. The poster and flyer designs were completed before Christmas and there’s excitement when boxes of flyers arrive at the gallery, and we start to spot advertising posters on the tube. It all seems suddenly very real.

Fast forward to Friday, four days before the exhibition opens. It’s 8.30am and the courier from the National Library of Scotland has landed safely at City Airport, despite some terrible Scottish weather threatening our well-made plans. It’s the end of our second week of installing, and I’ve been in the gallery for over 50 hours already this week. A photographer and film crew are due in a few hours, and we’re half-way through focusing the lighting.

men at work on the exhibition

Installing the map as part of the 59 Productions digital installation

the cabinets with sensor equipment

Preparing for the installation of a document and a painting within the gallery

The exhibition is already looking beautiful, and despite the weary faces, it’s obvious our team are immensely proud. As am I. So far, I think to myself, everything has pretty much gone to plan. My four page installation schedule taped to the wall is covered in scribbles and amendments, but almost everything is ticked off. At 4pm the team gathers to watch the final test of the digital installation by 59 Productions, when I get a call – our fine art courier is behind schedule and stuck in traffic. Delivery is delayed by over three hours. Our art technicians have other jobs to go to this evening, and the mount-maker will have left. A few minutes later it becomes apparent that there are issues being detected with the required environmental conditions for the documents. The next few hours race past. Many frantic phone calls later and we have solutions to both problems. Come 9.30pm we leave the gallery, to return before 9am on Saturday for a long day of problem-solving with help drafted in from a Yorkshire-based company (they set off at 3am!). I book a taxi home that evening, and it’s worth every penny.

gordon and journos

Professor Gordon McMullan, Director, London Shakespeare Centre at King’s speaks to a group of journalists from across the world at the exhibition press view event.

Deborah presenting at private view

Deborah Bull, Assistant Principal, King’s College London opens the exhibition on the evening of 2 February at a busy private view.

Monday, 24 hours until the press view. We spend eight hours training a team of over 40 invigilators and box office staff. The BBC arrive and film a piece for the 6 O’clock news and then sit in their van outside to edit and send to the news room just before their deadline. By 10pm I’m standing in a silent and completed exhibition. In 10 hours we’ll have 60 reporters, photographers and film crews bustling to get their interview or soundbite. In 20 hours we’ll be starting our Private View event and welcoming the first audience to the exhibition whilst glasses are clinked and a string quartet serenades the guests. In 36 hours we will open the doors to our first eager visitors (some of whom waited for 40 minutes to be the first people over the threshold). But for now I take one last look around, tidy away a rogue spirit level, and head home. By me William Shakespeare opens tomorrow.


By me William Shakespeare: A life in writing is open Tues – Sun, 10.00 – 18.00 (until 20.00 Thursdays), until 29 May in the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, King’s College London.  The exhibition is free for King’s staff and students. Tickets: