London: “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” @ the British Library

“A phoenix rising from the ashes in a 13th-century bestiary” (c) British Library

Sometimes I feel like I’m too negative. Not often, mind, because I’m generally quite comfortable with being a pessimistic glass-half-empty kind of individual, but for the purposes of this blog, I feel like people get sick of my opening every post with, “I’m not really a such-and-such fan, but I went to this exhibition anyway.” But much like the apocryphal George Washington, I cannot tell a lie, and I am truly not the biggest fan of Harry Potter. I liked the books just fine, but I only read the series through once, maybe twice (unlike books I love, which I will happily reread on a yearly basis), and I never had any interest in the films. Some of this could be because I was just a bit too old when the books came out in the US to have gotten REALLY into them (I was far more into reading terrible romance novels when I was 13, so my best friend and I could laugh ourselves stupid at the sex scenes), but some of it is also probably just being contrary after they turned out to be so popular, because of course I’m far too “strange and unusual” (to channel Lydia Deetz) to have been into something so mainstream. Because let’s face it – witchcraft and magic are exactly the kind of things I normally like.  All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why I went to see the new Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library, despite knowing it would be the most annoyingly crowded and nerdy thing ever. You see, the description of it implied that it would not be solely about Harry Potter, but also about the historical magical texts that inspired JK Rowling, and I am definitely keen on historical magical texts. Also, from a blog traffic perspective, I thought it would be something that enough people are interested in reading about that it might drive a few more visitors my way.  (Photography was not allowed inside the exhibition, so the object photos are not mine, and are credited accordingly.)

“The snowy owl, in John James Audubon’s The Birds of America 1827-38” (c) British Library Board

“Harry Potter: A History of Magic” runs until 28 February 2018, and costs £16, though I was able to get half-price entry thanks to my National Art Pass. Though I typically just turn up to BL exhibitions, in this case I thought it would be wise to pre-book, and I’m glad I did, because there was a sold out sign hanging up by the time we arrived. I deliberately booked a weekday slot, hoping it would be less crowded, but obviously, because it was sold out, I wasn’t that lucky. We arrived early, so after killing some time in the free new “Sounds” exhibition (where you can use headphones or sit in these cozy pods to listen to various recordings from the BL’s extensive collection (I was surprised by Amelia Earhart’s voice – for some reason I had pictured her as sounding like Katherine Hepburn, but she was much more earnest and less posh than that)) we headed over to the Harry Potter exhibition, which evidently sometimes even has queues to enter judging by the rope barriers we had to wind our way around, despite entry being only via timed slots. Once our tickets were scanned and we were inside though, it instantly became much more atmospherically magical.

Gilded Bezoar Stone (stones that grow inside the stomach of the bezoar goat, once thought to be an effective antidote to poison) (c) The Board of the Trustees of the Science Museum, London

The exhibition consists of a number of small rooms, each one themed around one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts. So there was Herbology, Potions, Divination, Astronomy, Care of Magical Creatures, and a few more that weren’t instantly recognisable to someone who hasn’t read the books in a decade or so (the guidebook tells me they’re Alchemy, Charms, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, which I probably should have known). Potions was the first room, but we were encouraged to walk around the exhibition in any order we liked, and seeing as Potions was insanely crowded, I headed off to the other rooms instead. I know I’ve said this before, but I am totally the kind of annoying museum visitor who refuses to queue – if there’s a wait to look at something, I will just peer into the gaps and strain to see over people’s shoulders. This was no exception, and I’m sure I pissed off a few of the ardent Potterphiles, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend hours waiting inside an exhibition I paid to see.

The Celestial Globe in the Astronomy Room (c) British Library Board

Each room actually did an excellent job of carrying the theme forward – the BL is usually pretty good at providing atmosphere, but this was exceptional. Each theme was introduced with a giant spellbook opened to the relevant page, and there were objects suspended from the ceilings of each room: flower pots in Herbology, cauldrons in Potions, and most delightfully, teacups in Divination. The Astronomy room contained a glowing star map on the ceiling, and a giant interactive celestial globe in the centre of the room, and there was a Snitch noisily flitting along the walls of another room (Charms, maybe?). There were also a number of interactive elements, including a Potions game that I didn’t get to play, and computerised crystal ball and Tarot card readings in the Divination room (can you tell Divination was my favourite?).

The Ripley Scroll (which contains imagery relating to the Philosopher’s Stone) (c) British Library Board

I would say there was actually a good mix of Potter-specific items, and generic witchy ones. There were portraits of various Hogwarts professors hanging on the walls and some of JK Rowling’s preliminary sketches for the books in the display cases. I also liked the pencil (charcoal?) sketches by Jim Kay because they were actually based off the books rather than the films (the films really didn’t get much mention here, which I appreciated). Additionally, there was a video showing a claymation model of Dobby being brought to life, which I actually found quite charming, because despite Dobby being hideously annoying in the films (I’ve seen bits and pieces when they were on TV, but have never sat and watched one through), I actually really liked him in the books, so I was glad someone was making him likeable again. And Care of Magical Creatures contained some great illustrations of various monsters and dragons and things described in the books.

“A mandrake being pulled out by a dog, in Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal” (c) British Library Board

As far as specifically witchy artefacts went, there were quite a few awesome things in here. Gorgeously illustrated botany books lined the cases along the walls of the Herbology section (I particularly liked the ones showing the mandrake root, and the actual dried mandrake root on display as well, because I’ve often heard the legends about mandrakes looking like little men and screaming when you pull them out of the ground, but had never seen a real one), and Alchemy was dominated by a giant medieval scroll showing how to create a Philosopher’s Stone that would turn base metals into gold, and even grant immortality (of course some crucial steps were left out, so no one could come back and blame the author when their Philosopher’s Stone didn’t work). I thought the “Invisibility Cloak” on display was funny, if a bit cheeky, but the Divination section was by the far the best, as it included many items borrowed from the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle (which I have visited, but sadly never blogged about, as it was during my pre-blogging years, and I took barely any photos. It’s excellent though!) – most notably an awesome fortune telling tea cup (it explained how to read the tea leaves left in the cup), Tarot cards, Chinese fortune telling bones, and “Smelly Nelly’s” crystal ball (so-called because she wore strong perfume, not because she had B.O., though perhaps she wore the perfume to cover up the B.O….I hope she doesn’t somehow put a curse on me for saying that) and just generally the kind of stuff I think is neat, even though I don’t quite believe in it.

“Small black crystal ball, used by Paignton witch ‘Smelly Nelly'” (c) Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

If only I’d be allowed to run riot in this exhibition by myself, I would have had the best time. As it was, my fun was severely hampered by the sheer number of fellow visitors, but I understood that it would be insanely busy coming into it, so I can’t say I wasn’t prepared (I was hopeful I’d be wrong, but I sensed I wouldn’t be). Other than the crowds, my main criticism is that although the exhibition did contain a good amount of historical witchy paraphernalia, it didn’t necessarily make the connection between Rowling’s books and said magical history. It was more, “here are some artefacts, here is some Potternalia,” with common themes between them, but no real connections drawn between the two. I don’t even know if Rowling personally consulted the texts that were on display, or if they were just examples of the sorts of things she might have studied whilst writing the books. Because the Harry Potter bit was the part of the exhibition that interested me least, I wasn’t that bothered by this, but it does make the exhibition description a little misleading, not that I think visitors will mind too terribly (most of them seemed to be in their “happy place,” which was really kind of sweet, albeit dorky (not that that’s a criticism, I’m plenty dorky myself, about other things)). I also hoped for more generically witchy things in the shop, but aside from a few pins and prints, it was pretty Potter-tastic, so I didn’t end up buying anything. Nevertheless, for atmosphere alone, and for the awesomeness of the things on display, even though the content was a bit lighter than other exhibitions at the BL (we were out of there in 45 minutes, even after backtracking to see things we’d missed on our first pass through due to queues, whereas I stayed in Maps and Terror and Wonder for a good hour and a half each), I think it deserves 4.5/5. Potterphiles (if that’s even the correct term – I can’t be bothered to look it up) will likely get more out of it than I did, what with all the original JK Rowling sketches and stuff, but even if, like me, you’re just into witches and fortune telling and stuff, I think it is still well worth seeing, and I’m glad I made the effort.

“A broomstick belonging to Olga Hunt” (c) Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

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11 comments

  1. I don’t know why but pretty much any story or movie having to do with witchcraft gives me a cozy, Christmas-y feeling (that probably makes no sense), so the timing of this is perfect. And it really does sound like so much fun. It’s just too bad that it’s tapped into such a popular market – it’d have been nice to view it at your own pace.
    I was really happy to see that early Mandrake illustration. The adorable, screaming mandrakes were one of my favourite things in the Harry Potter films. Though, judging by the one in the picture, they were actually envisioned as, ahem, maturing quite a bit more than I realized.
    And I love, love, love that crystal ball. I think that’s the thing I’d have most wished was real as a kid. One of my friends had a Magic 8 Ball and I can remember SO wanting it to be the real thing. Ah, the bitter disappointment when I had to accept that it was not…

    1. I get it. It’s like how traditionally in England people told ghost stories at Christmas time (learning this finally made the “Scary ghost stories” lyric in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” make sense, because it puzzled me as a kid).
      Yes, he really puts the “man” in “mandrake,” doesn’t he? I would have loved to have a crystal ball when I was a kid too. I had a Magic 8 Ball, and I even had this cheap Timex watch when I was a teenager that had a Magic 8 Ball function, where if you pressed a button, it would give you a vague answer. I loved that damn watch, and I wore it every day for probably five or six years, until the band started to stink so bad I had to get a new one, and then I eventually stopped wearing watches all together. It’s probably still floating around somewhere at my parents’ house though.

      1. I’m so glad you mentioned “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – that bothered me as a kid too!
        And I am clearly not over my Magic 8 Ball obsession because I felt a serious pang of envy hearing about yours – and especially your awesome watch! That must’ve been amazing.

  2. I loooooooathe Harry Potter everything — I think his whole universe is cliched, derivative and sophomoric — but I loved this blog. With a wry eye and appreciated depth, you made it fun. Still, I won’t be going to the show, despite the non-Potter witchy wonders!

  3. I read the first Harry Potter before the hype (I bought children’s books for the library and read some* that caught my eye). I thought it was ok but nothing special, so I was amazed by how it took off. I’ve never felt moved to read another one. Anyway, this is a long way round of saying the witchcraft bit sounds interesting but the Potter bits would be way over my head.

    *Ok, a lot.

    1. I’d love a job like that! I still prefer children’s fiction to most adult fiction, though I’ve managed to acquire most of my favourites over the years so I don’t have to embarrass myself by taking them out of the library.
      If you’re not at all bothered about the Potter stuff, better to just visit the Museum of Witchcraft I think. It’s not very interactive, but it is very witchy!

  4. I find your honesty refreshing! And confession – I’m not really a Harry Potter fan either. Read the first book in the 6th grade and remember finding it a slow start before devouring it. But I just couldn’t get into the second one so I just dropped the series. Anyway, at least the related content made the visit worthwhile!

    1. I am always honest, which I can’t say has always served me well over the years, but at least I’m principled, I guess. But yeah, they sold me with the historic magical texts and objects, and at least they delivered!

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