As Durham city prepares to exhibit its copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, Steve Pratt looks around to see what else in on show in a new exhibition at Durham University.

THE Durham copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio has a chequered history to rival the stories the Bard of Avon tells in his comedies, histories and tragedies. It is the only known copy to have stayed in the same personal library since its purchase by John Cosin, a former Bishop of Durham, in the 17th Century.

The thinking is he probably bought it new – it was first published in 1623 – and donated it to his purpose-built library on Palace Green in 1669.

And there it stayed until 1998 when it was stolen – along with other books and manuscripts – from the library in Durham City.

Ten years later it was recovered after a man walked into the Bolger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, and handed over a book he claimed to have discovered in Cuba. Suspicious officials called in the experts, who established it as the missing Durham copy, although the book had been “brutally damaged” with missing pages and loose binding in a bid to disguise its identity.

Raymond Scott was cleared of stealing the folio but jailed for handling stolen goods and removing stolen property from the UK.

Now the book, with an estimated value of £1.5m, is back where it belongs and on display for the public to see – but not touch as the damaged book is earmarked for restoration work later this year.

The Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays and thought to be one of around 230 in existence, is the centrepiece of a new exhibition, The Treasures of Durham University.

This spotlights a number of other university treasures and manuscripts and is the inaugural exhibition in the new Wolfson Gallery, which has undergone a £2.3m refurbishment, funded in part by a £500,000 donation from the Wolfson Foundation.

The exhibition’s guest curator, Bill Bryson, chancellor of Durham University and author of an acclaimed book on Shakespeare, describes the First Folio as “clearly one of the most important in the English language”.

Other treasures are drawn from collections across the university, including the Oriental Museum, the Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology, Durham Castle and Palace Green Library.

They include first editions of Oliver Twist and Pride And Prejudice, a first edition Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson, Chinese imperial textiles, the earliest history of Durham Cathedral written 900 years ago, and 13th to 15th Century Durham Mint coins produced by the Prince Bishops of Durham.

“Refurbishing and expanding our exhibition space allows us to open up our treasures so they can be safely displayed for the benefits of our students, staff, visiting scholars and the wider public,” says Professor Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University.

“It’s wonderful to be able to share our treasures, including the First Folio, so that everyone can enjoy the rich experience offered by Durham University.

“The refurbishment of the whole Palace Green Library will ensure all our treasures are much more accessible while being fully protected both physically and environmentally.”

The new exhibition space complements on-going work to renovate the university’s almshouses, on Owengate, as a visitor centre for the Unesco World Heritage Site of Durham Cathedral and Castle. The centre is due to be completed in May.

The Shakespeare First Folio is on display in the Spotlight series in the Treasures exhibition until March 6.