magic

London: “Smoke and Mirrors” @ the Wellcome

What we have here, for once, is a happy confluence of an exhibition at the Wellcome that I really really wanted to see, and visitors being allowed to take photos of said exhibition (which isn’t often allowed at the Wellcome). Oh happy day (and now I’m going to have the Sister Act 2 version of that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day)!

 

“Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic,” which runs until 15 September, is basically exactly what it sounds like – an examination of how magic works on the human mind – and is free to visit, like everything at the Wellcome. It was not too crowded at the time of my visit, which made for a nice change over the usual packed rooms, though my fellow visitors still managed to park it right in front of every video screen (good I didn’t care about watching most of them anyway, though I did watch a bit of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about Spiritualism. He didn’t sound at all like I expected, as you can probably tell from my expression).

I’m not much of a fan of most magicians anymore (they tend to either be too cheesy or take themselves way too seriously), though I loved watching them when I was little, and walked around with one of those kids’ magic kits forcing my mother to watch me perform tricks (like pulling a handkerchief out of a wand, which was super magical if you ignored the end of cloth that was protruding out of the wand at all times), but I am very into the idea of magic (and magick), and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. And of course I’m interested in historical magic and seances (though I don’t actually believe in ghosts), so I was especially excited to see the items belonging to Mina “Margery” Crandon and Harry Houdini (there’s a book called The Witch of Lime Street that details their encounter, which I read last October (part of my annual Halloween book season of spooky reads)).

 

The exhibition was ostensibly divided up into three themed sections: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, but as so often happens, I didn’t really see that much of a clear distinction between them, as the exhibition seemed to flow in more of a chronological manner than a themed one. The Medium was about the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was thus my favourite part. There were some cases in the middle that contained an array of objects used in seances, including a rapping hand and a cool handmade Ouija board with a very happy little sun.

  

This sort of segued into a section on Houdini himself, containing a great poster for one of his shows, and a kimono style robe belonging to Margery Crandon, as well as a bunch of pictures of her manifesting her “ectoplasm” (chunks of meat, in reality). I was excited to see that Houdini’s famous bell box was here, though it looked much easier to use than I was expecting. Margery Crandon’s whole conceit was that she channeled spirits using the help of her guide, who was her dead brother Walter. In the early 1920s, Scientific American magazine promised a prize of $2500 to anyone who could demonstrate genuine telekinesis, and though Margery’s husband was a wealthy doctor, she wanted that prize (though she was probably more after the fame). Houdini was on the panel of men sent to test her using a variety of supposedly cheat-proof contraptions Houdini had devised, including the bell box, which she would have to ring whilst tied up inside a large wooden box (large enough so that she could sit comfortably inside; it wasn’t a torture device or anything) from which only her head protruded (also on display. The box, that is, not her head). But after seeing the box, I realise it was much less complicated than it sounded, as you didn’t have to actually reach inside the box to ring the bell, you just had to depress a panel on the top. No wonder she was able to ring it by leaning her head forward out of the box! Not sure why Houdini, the great sceptic, didn’t invent a better system than this, but then spiritualists did make up a lot of rules that had to be followed (like seances being held in the dark, for example, or the entire circle having to hold hands), and were conveniently unable to channel anything if these rules were broken. Makes you wonder how anyone could have believed in them, let alone the people who still do!

 

But let’s put my thoughts on human gullibility aside, and focus on the rest of the exhibition (and yes, I realise that most people who consult psychics are grieving and desperate, and I should really be angry at the people who choose to exploit them, but still). There were a series of short films in here showing how various magic tricks worked on the brain, and I’m sure these were very interesting (and maybe I should have watched them so I could have learned exactly why some people do believe in these things instead of just calling them gullible), but there were a lot of people in front of them and I have a limited attention span (far more entertaining was the early film showing a psychic being unmasked after floating a “ghost” through a room on a fishing line). So I just enjoyed looking at the props on display instead – a gorilla head worn by Derren Brown, the box Paul Daniels used to saw Debbie McGee in half, and Tommy Cooper’s fez.

 

My distaste for magicians does not extend to Derren Brown, whom I quite like, though I haven’t been to one of his shows because I’m terrified he’ll pull me from the audience (probably not, because I wasn’t susceptible to hypnotism when my high school psychology teacher attempted it on the class (much less shady than it sounds), but you never know), and I definitely enjoyed looking at some of his props, including the very cool poster shown above.

 

I know Derren Brown did something similar to this on one of his shows, but there was also a wall showing a series of random statements given to a group of people as their horoscope, who all thought it exactly described them. Of course, the catch is that all their horoscopes were exactly the same! I wish I could say this means I never bother to check my horoscope, but of course I do, if I happen to catch sight of it in the paper.

 

I think my issue, if I have to have an issue (yes I do, it’s the Virgo talking, haha), is that because this exhibition was focused on the psychology of how magic works, it was quite light on history, and I would have really preferred the history! I’m glad there were at least some artefacts here, especially those relating to the Margery Crandon case, but I would have liked to see more historical background behind them because I’m sure not everyone had read about these things beforehand. So it was disappointing in that respect, but I still think it’s an interesting subject and I’ll happily go see pretty much any exhibit about the occult, so I left reasonably content. 3/5.

  

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