Expertly devised, “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” is a fine example of cohesive curation: artifacts, texts, and images from varying periods and places, are able to seamlessly occupy the same space through the Potter-thread that unifies them.
2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The year must also coincide with an increased burst of interest in all things Potter: the run up to this milestone year has been peppered with revamped and illustrated editions of the original stories; last year’s film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a smash hit at cinemas, and the West-End play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” continues to fill seats without fail. Not only this, but independent Harry Potter-themed shops have recently opened in Edinburgh and York (one of this piece’s writers must declare a conflict of interest – yes, I work in York’s best Wizarding-themed shop, The Shop That Must Not Be Named, and have studied medieval magical beliefs). All in all, the nation is well primed, and there seems no time more appropriate for The British Library to partner up with Bloomsbury for such an exhibition.
If you have attended an exhibition at the British Library before, you will be forgiven for mistaking the exhibition space for an entirely new addition. The dedicated space is almost unrecognisable,rebuilt into smaller rooms, each centering on a different magical subject from the curriculum at Hogwarts, namely: Potions, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, and Care of Magical Creatures. With every subject, comes a significant array of artifacts and texts for each category dating back over a thousand years. The contrast of JK Rowling’s early drafts, typed or handwritten and vigorously scribbled over, next to luxurious manuscripts of learned magic from all around the world, is notable, highlighting the humble origins of the literary franchise that has broken so many records.
One stand-out piece is the sixteenth-century Ripley Scroll – a six meter long guide to making your own philosopher’s stone that is rarely seen at its full length. The tombstone of Nicholas Flamel – designed by the alchemist himself – is placed nearby, and is an item sure to get any avid Potterhead excited. These two artifacts complement each other wonderfully and underscore the interdisciplinary awareness of the exhibition.
Perhaps some of the most interesting and unexpected aspects of the exhibition are the myriad illustrations by Jim Kay. These include completed portraits of certain episodes and the main characters, but also preliminary studies. His style mirrors the realistic drawings of early herbals and bestiaries displayed alongside, revealing his previous life as a curator at Kew Gardens. The attention to detail, especially in a study of a single phoenix feather, is captivating, as the illustrations create their own magic. Emphasised in the final room of the exhibition, Harry Potter became a quick and all-encompassing phenomenon; and whilst artifacts and texts from history included in the exhibition are, as is the case with history, displayed in their only surviving or completed copies, these preliminary studies of Kay’s and working drafts of Rowling’s exhibit the unique sight of a legacy in the making.
At no point does it feel that one aspect of the exhibition dwarfs the other; the curatorial team have delicately balanced history and magical traditions with context provided by JK Rowling’s wizarding world. This is a rare opportunity to see magical texts, artifacts and artworks together when they would usually be stored across the country (notably at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall). Furthermore, items from further afield such as a Japanese netsuke in the form of an imp called a kappa, Arabic magic books and an Ethiopian amulet show the international nature of magic, which is also reflected in JK Rowling’s writings.
However, though there is much here to interest the already very knowledgeable Potter fan (including “deleted scenes” in the form of sections written then edited out), there is not so much for those of us with more than a passing knowledge of magic through history. Some artifacts, such as a modern staff belonging to a Wiccan priest and wand in the shape of a snake have interesting questions raised on the exhibition captions but these are left tantalisingly unanswered. Even the catalogue does not give further depth, unfortunately. However, by presenting so many interesting artefacts and manuscripts, and raising questions, the exhibition does magnificently capture one’s imagination. Certainly, as a regular library user, I find it significant to note that this exhibition is one of the few times I have seen young children enthusiastically visiting the BL. The exhibition certainly opens up the potentially-inaccessible institution to a new audience, much in the same way that the Harry Potter tales and wider wizarding world continue to open up literary and academic worlds to children in an exciting and relatable way.
Written by Jordan Cook and Elizabeth Wilson
You can visit the exhibition at the British Library until 28 February 2018. For more information visit here.