Love it or hate it, read every word or none at all, there’s no denying that the Harry Potter novels have become a cultural and literary force. Now, 20 years after the publication of The Philosopher’s Stone the books have spawned two separate movie franchises, tie-in stories, a theme park, the careers of a generation of young actors and a two-part stage play that sold out in London and will shortly head to Broadway. There’s no escaping the Potter effect, and the British Library’s new exhibition puts those seven game-changing children’s novels into the wider context of magical writing, charting the history of their influences including witchcraft, divination and herbology.
Mixing sources from the extensive and fascinating British Library collection, artefacts from other museums including the Wellcome Collection and Museum of Witchcraft, and plenty of early handwritten pages and original illustrations from Rowling’s own collection, this exhibition is an intelligent and engaging examination of the world within and beyond the Harry Potter stories, helping to explain their broad appeal. And it’s important to be clear at this point that this exhibition is entirely about the books, so anyone expecting film clips and costumes will be disappointed. Presumably Warner Bros won’t sanction any use of their material while they have their own theme park to promote, but at the same time, without them this becomes a more fitting exhibition for a library to host.
This exhibition coherently and successfully argues that the success of the Harry Potter series lies in the detailed and fully-realised world that J.K. Rowling has created. Far more than a well-plotted drama unveiling its many twists and shocks over seven increasingly weighty novels, every detail of Rowling’s world feels complete, informed and, despite its basis in magic and fantasy, entirely believable. To demonstrate this, the exhibition is divided into ten individual sections based on some of the lessons Hogwarts’ students would experience, calling upon evidence from the British Library’s own collection to show how closely Rowling’s fictitious world is grounded in our real one.
Bookending the exhibition are sections on the evolution of the first Potter story and its current impact, so as you first enter this mini-world you’re offered some preparatory material including an original synopsis of The Philosopher’s Stone, as well as artworks of characters, scenes and sketches by Jim Kay. Then it’s time for the first lesson of the day, Potions. After you’ve tried to mix one of your own prompted by an interactive display, you can see a real bezoar, some interestingly decorated potion jars, a 1200-year old cauldron and several books that discuss the identification of, and activities associated with, witchcraft, including the earliest image of them from the 15th Century, all guarded by Kay’s symbol-laden portrait of Professor Snape on loan from Bloomsbury Publishing.
The second lesson is Alchemy, focusing on the search for the Philosopher’s Stone that turns base metals into gold and can offer eternal life, that dominated Harry Potter’s first adventure. Its centrepiece are the large and fully illustrated Ripley scrolls that outline how to create the stone using various resources carefully brought together, with several detailed notes from the curators explaining the 16th century symbols and processes depicted as you move down the large display case. There’s also a section devoted to Nicholas Flamel, who is referenced in Rowling’s first story, as the man claiming to have found the Philosopher’s Stone in 14th century France. Alongside some detail about his real life as a bookseller, the exhibition also displays his tombstone which suggests his search for immortality somewhat eluded him.
Some of the British Library’s most beautiful books are on display in the Herbology section as well as Rowling’s own sketches (which feature throughout the exhibition), including a charming original depiction of Professor Sprout with her plants and a spider on her hat. The Library has contributed some stunning large scale early illustrations of key plants used for magical concoction and particularly notable are images of the mandrake plant which sit alongside Jim Kay’s more person-like interpretations used in The Chamber of Secrets. Kay’s work is also the centre piece for the Charms lesson as a multi-page, incredibly detailed pencil sketch of the shopfronts of Diagon Alley dominates one wall. There are also examples of enchanted objects like Olga Hunt’s witch’s broomstick which she claimed to have ridden around Dartmoor and, in a wry touch, an invisibility cloak in a glass case – nice to see the British Library having some fun with the concept.
Moving on, the next two sections focus on Astronomy and Divination, outlining the ways in which Rowling used both for meaningful character names and plot devices. There are star charts showing Sirius and Draco which ended up as key characters, while an interactive display allows you to look more closely at the 1693 Celestial Globe which dominates the centre of the room. There’s more interactivity in Divination, and after you’ve examined the ancient arts of palmistry, reading tea leaves and Chinese Oracle Bones from 1192 BC, you can also have your fortune told by a placing your hands on the table where a computer will select three cards interpreting your past, present and future.
One of the most engaging elements of the Potter novels has been the difficulty of retaining Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers and the sense of forbidden activity that the teenage heroes found irresistible. Here, the British Library has compiled a fascinating collection of artefacts designed to protect the wearer from evil, as well as information on dangerous creatures such as basilisks and werewolves, watched-over by Kay’s symbol-laden pencil portrait of Professor Lupin, as well as a magic staff, a statue of the Sphinx and an omitted section of text from one of Rowling’s early drafts.
Cunningly, our final lesson is also the one that leads us into the future for Rowling’s fantastical world, with Care of Magical Creatures now starting its own multi-film franchise as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But first, there’s plenty to learn about unicorns, phoenix and mermaids, including the fabricated half-fish-half-monkey loaned from the British Museum, which Japan claimed to have captured and displayed as a genuine creature from the sea in the 18th century. There’s also an illuminated manuscript depicting the lifecycle of the phoenix from the 13th century that sits close to one of the cutest exhibits, Jim Kay’s original depiction of Fluffy, Hagrid’s three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Philosopher’s Stone, which is considerably more adorable then its eventual film version.
Before you leave, if you were in any doubt that the Harry Potter series has become a considerable cultural force, there’s the chance to see book covers from around the world with their different approaches to cover art and title, while for theatre lovers there’s a copy of the stage model from the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child currently showing in London and soon heading to Broadway and Australia, which has mini-versions of stars Jamie Parker and Noma Dumezweni who created the original roles. One final treat for fans is Rowling’s original chapter plan for The Order of the Phoenix arranged by school year, and Rowling’s notes on the first Fantastic Beast’s script, assurance that this magical world will live on for some time to come.
The whole exhibition is beautifully designed to look like Hogwarts with library motifs, display cases with Norman-arched windows, flying books, teacups and broomsticks that add to the atmosphere as you wander around. With sources drawn from Rowling’s publisher Bloomsbury alongside The British Museum, Museum of Witchcraft and countless valuable books from the British Library’s own archive, this is a diverse and fascinating collection of material that full reinforces the central argument that Rowling’s influences had wide foundation in a range of established studies and practices. There’s no denying that a novel first scribbled on trains and in cafes has become one of the biggest -ever influences on all kinds of literature. 20 years, 7 books, 9 films, a two-part play and numerous spin-off books later, this British Library exhibition is a perfect tribute to the depth of knowledge and research that created a phenomenon.
Harry Potter: A History of a Magic is at the British Library until 28th February. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1