Inside the British Library's incredible Harry Potter anniversary exhibit

Contributed by
Oct 23, 2017

Harry Potter fans will always be waiting, hoping against hope, to receive our Hogwarts letters. While we may not be able to attend the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry anytime soon, we can now feel like we’re sitting in the same classrooms as Harry, Ron, and Hermione thanks to the British Library’s new exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic was created in honor of the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’s first publication. The exhibition opened Friday and features a mix of sketches and drafts from J.K. Rowling as well as beautiful art by Jim Kay, who is working on the illustrated editions of the series. These Harry Potter items are alongside manuscripts, books, and other pieces that relate to the history of folklore, mythology, and other topics in our own world that relate to what we’ve seen in Rowling’s work. These historical pieces come from the British Library’s collection and are on loan from other locations such as the British Museum, Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, and Musée de Cluny.

“Our exhibition sets J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter stories in their wider cultural context. It demonstrates that many of the stories that she features related to cauldrons, broomsticks, unicorns, and dragons, they all have historical, mythological precedents,” Julian Harrison, lead curator of the exhibition at the British Library, told press during a tour Thursday.

The exhibit is structured with each room representing a different subject of study from Hogwarts, giving us the chance to live the school schedule of our dreams. There’s Potions, Alchemy, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Care of Magical Creatures. The items in each room stick to the topic, and the exhibition starts with Potions, where the Battersea Cauldron is front and center, and then moves to Alchemy, where the Ripley Scroll is a highlight, especially if you ever wanted to try your hand at making your own philosopher’s stone. The scroll describes the process for how to do so, and not far from it is the gravestone for the real Nicolas Flamel, who in the Harry Potter series was the only one to actually create a philosopher's stone.

Remember the screaming mandrakes from Chamber of Secrets? Well, in the Herbology room you can learn all about what people in the Middle Ages believed about these plants and even the proper way to remove a real one (you’ll need a dog, a horn, and something to clog your ears!). The library also has on display the oldest dateable item from their collections with the Chinese oracle bones in Divination. Plus, in Care of Magical Creatures, you can see what was passed off at one time as a real mermaid.

From Japan, it has the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish. Other sections in the room are devoted to unicorns, hippogriffs, and more creatures as they were featured in our own history and mythology.

Leaping from our world to the fictional world of Harry Potter is easy, as these items are throughout each section as well. Even before entering Potions, the entry outside the exhibit door features flying keys on the ceiling and a glass case filled with books, wands, and items bearing the Hogwarts crest.

Then, in the first introduction area called The Journey, as music plays in the background, you can see a few items on display before heading downstairs to the rest of the exhibition, such as one of the most standout items in the exhibition: a sketch of Hogwarts that shows Rowling’s layout of the school.

All of the items from Rowling make you feel like you’re peering into a Pensieve and reliving Rowling’s memories of these key moments from Harry Potter history. An early draft of Philosopher’s Stone shows that at one time Hagrid visited a muggle minister named Fudge, and an old chapter from Chamber of Secrets reveals that at first Harry and Ron crashed the flying car into the lake and met mermaids instead of crashing it into the Whomping Willow.

In Herbology, there’s a 1990 sketch of Professor Sprout by Rowling, and in the final room, titled Past, Present, Future, you can see her written plan for Order of the Phoenix and a first edition of Philosopher’s Stone that is the only copy Rowling has personally annotated. Along the way as you weave through the rooms you’ll find portraits of professors and other art by Kay, as well as quotes from the series on the walls.

 

The exhibition is beautifully decorated and draws you in with interactive displays that make it feel like you’ve left London behind and stepped through Platform 9 3/4 to Potter’s magical world. The ceiling of the Astronomy room is a starry night sky, below which sits a 400-year-old celestial globe that with the help of Google Arts and Culture offers an augmented-reality experience so that you can see the stars and constellations that share names with characters like Sirius Black and Draco Malfoy.

In Divination, you can see if you have the Sight by gazing into an appropriately cloudy crystal ball and receive a digital Tarot card reading. You can try to brew a potion, witness the shadows of magical creatures like unicorns and hear them as they walk by, listen to people practicing charms, and try to catch a glimpse of a golden snitch moving around the room. The exhibit excels at having fun with the topic, even including a case for an invisibility cloak with a placard reading that it was given by a “private lender.”

By the time you’ve walked through, you’ll not only want to read or watch the Harry Potter series over again, but will want to learn even more about these topics in our own history. The exhibit ends at the British Library Feb. 28, 2018, and will then make its way to the New York Historical Society in October 2018.