Harry Potter: A History of Magic cover
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Credit: Scholastic

Inside the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibit's companion book

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Nov 6, 2018

The wonders found in the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibit are undoubtedly a must-see for fans. The exhibition — which started at the British Library and is now at the New-York Historical Society — celebrates the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone's publication by Scholastic in the United States with a fantastic look at how J.K. Rowling's series started, the inspiration behind it, and its historical connections.

If you can't make it to New York via plane or Portkey to catch the exhibition, don't worry too much. The official Harry Potter: A History of Magic companion book features artifacts and explanations from each part of the exhibition so you can feel like you're right there as you scan through its pages.

The book follows the same path as the exhibit, starting with "The Journey," going through Hogwarts classes such as Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts, and then ending with "Past, Present, Future." Throughout the book, you'll find beautiful color photos that give you an up-close look at everything from Rowling's own original drawings of characters to historical pieces like 18th-century hand-colored tarot cards.

According to the New-York Historical Society's vice president and museum director Margi Hofer, the book follows the format of the British Library's companion book but reflects the changes made when the exhibition came to New York and how it tells the American story.

"We were very keen to add the sorts of things that allowed our visitors to learn about say the difference between the Philosopher's Stone and the Sorcerer's Stone, why the name change, the different illustrations in the American editions versus the British editions," Hofer told SYFY WIRE. "Really our process was how do we enhance this and tweak it so it really reflects our exhibition and the differences between the American publication and the Bloomsbury publication."

The New-York Historical Society worked closely with Scholastic to develop the book. Hofer called the process very collaborative and was pleased with how the book turned out, including how the design featured a much bolder presentation than the previous version. The Society worked with Executive Editor of Harry Potter & Wizarding World publishing at Scholastic, Emily Clement, who told SYFY WIRE they didn't see the need to reinvent the wheel. The first companion book was great, but she and her team did have to make changes based on new items that were added and replacement pieces for those things that couldn't travel.

The exhibit in New York, for example, includes a number of great items from the New-York Historical Society's own collection and items from other American institutions that were not in the British Library's exhibition. Scholastic also looked in its own archive to see what it could add to the exhibit to illuminate the Harry Potter journey.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic full cover

Credit: Scholastic

"'What can we do to add that story to this already amazing collection of artifacts and pieces?' That was certainly a part of the process, figuring out what are the new elements going to be here," Clement says. "'What's going out, what's going in, and how do we make sure we reflect all of that in the book and show all these pieces in their best light and give people the experience of seeing it in the book?' which is a bit different from seeing it in the exhibition."

With the book in hand, you can easily revisit descriptions of favorite objects or spend as much time looking at an image as you want. To Hofer, there is something different about having the book in front of you because "there is a little more meat on the bones.

"There's more detail about the specific objects. There's excellent photography and some things in the gallery, particularly if you're visiting the gallery when it's crowded, it's hard to get a good look at and you can linger a bit over the images in the book," Hofer says. "I think there's a lot of benefits to going through the book after you've been to the exhibition. I know of the shows I attend, there's always things you miss and I'm sure people going through the book will say 'oh I don't remember seeing that.'"

You'll even find some information that's not in the exhibition. Hofer calls the book "extremely comprehensive," which did lead to a familiar challenge: editing.

"When you have too many words for a particular object description, what do you cut? We wanted to make everything as meaty as possible without overwhelming the reader with too much text," Hofer says. "The descriptions for the objects in the book are a little longer, a little more detailed than what you get in the exhibition. They do provide the exhibition visitor with a bit of an enhanced experience going through the book. There are also curator comments. There are a lot of fun facts interspersed throughout the book that you don't get in the exhibition either."

According to Hofer, there are about two dozen more items in the book than in the original. To her, one of the biggest standout pieces is the Ripley Scroll, which she says is difficult to display and but more than worth it. Another piece included in New York and not in the British Library? Original artwork by Mary GrandPré, who created all the covers for the original Scholastic books.

That art is one of the most exciting parts of the exhibit to Clement, as well, since GrandPré's art is so iconic to Harry Potter.

"You know what that artwork looks like, but it's really amazing to see them, the full jacket on its own whether it's in the book or in person," Clement says. "To really be able to appreciate it just on its own and to see the notes about what her process was in creating it or there are some pieces by Mary that are unpublished where this is the first time they're being seen. Pieces that were commissioned for a project that ultimately didn't go anywhere and so this is such a great opportunity to show off this other work she's done."

There's also an amazing piece by Brian Selznick that Clement is excited for people to see. It was used for new covers on all seven books but is included in its original form here.

"It's really stunning and every time you look at it you see new details that you didn't see before. Just being able to see these images that are really familiar to us, but in a different way, seeing them on their own, I think is really exciting," Clement says.

Art by Brian Selznick © 2018 by Scholastic Inc Harry Potter

Art by Brian Selznick © 2018 by Scholastic Inc

To Clement, the book and exhibit combine history and pop culture in a way that makes complete sense. It reminds you of "the incredible richness of the world of Harry Potter.

"If you're not a historian, if you're not someone who already knows these things, you might remember the name Nicholas Flamel from Sorcerer's Stone and then go to the exhibition or look in the book and see 'oh that's his actual tombstone. He was a real person,'" Clement says. "I think having examples of that time and time again and just seeing all of these amazing connections to our own world is such a great reminder of that creativity and imagination and depth and really [the] richness of this fantasy world that we've all so loved for the past 20 years. It's sort of a really natural, amazing thing and I think a brilliant idea that is so much fun to be able to dive in and explore."

The Harry Potter: A History of Magic official companion book to the British Library exhibition at the New-York Historical Society is available now.

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