Sunday, 7 January 2018

Harry Potter : A History of Magic

I was intrigued when I saw that the British Library was going to be having an exhibition about Harry Potter, and the History of Magic, so I booked a ticket, and on Saturday morning, set off to visit. I didn't feel terribly enthusiastic immediately (getting up early, cold weather, and train with broken heating, were to blame for that), but once I arrived, I started to feel more enthusiastic!

The Library has made an effort to welcome visitors, with the Hogwarts Houses represented in the foyer. (Sadly, no photographs were permitted in the exhibition itself)

I did however enjoy the decor which has appeared above the area immediately outside the exhibition entrance - so many flying keys, although unless you bring your own broomstick, they are too high to reach!

The exhibition combines items from  Harry Potter, including Rowling's original synopsis for her publisher, part of a very early draft (in which Dudley Dursley was 'Didsbury Dursley), and handwritten notes and drawings by JK Rowling, as well as artwork (mainly, I think, from the new illustrated editions) there are portraits of Dumbledore, Snape and McGonegall, as well as illustrations of Diagon Alley, and various beasts and plants.

Then there are items associated with the history of magic,mythology and folklore, exploring some of the ideas which influenced Rowling.

It is arranged by way of different Hogwarts departments; after a general introduction (including 'flying' books suspended from the ceiling), we start with Potions - the room was lit by lights set in upside-down cauldrons, and exhibits included a portrait of Severus Snape, a genuine cauldron, and documents such as illuminated manuscripts showing apothecaries and medieval lessons on making potions, and  Bald's Leechbook, a 10th C medical text (open to a cure for snakebite). The information card mentioned that research recently discovered that one of the cures in Bald's Leechbook has recently been found to be remarkably effective against MRSA! 

 There were also some apothecaries jars, a unicorn head (it explained that the Unicorn was often used as a sign for apothecaries shops, as a reference to their ability to source and supply rare ingredients.

Bezoar Stone in case (Image British Library)
And a bona-fide Bezoar stone (together with a manuscript explaining where to find them, and how much more those from a 'proper' bezoar goat is, than those found in cows or horses.

The next room was devoted to Alchemy, with pride of place being given to The Ripley Scroll, a 6 metre long scroll explaining how to make the Philosopher's Stone. Other exhibits include Nicholas Flamel's tombstone (on loan from the  Musée de Cluny).

Ripley Scroll (image from British Library)
The next room was Herbology which of course included displays such as Culpeper's Herbal, John Evelyn's manuscript record (complete with pressed plants) of plants collected in Padua in 1645, and a copy of Elizabeth Blackwell's beautiful, hand-coloured 'A Curious Herbal'

It also includes a genuine Mandrake root (borrowed from the Wellcome collection, and dating to the 16th or 17th C) which did look  disturbingly like an old man, and a 14thC Arabic Herbal, from Baghdad, (again dealing with the Mandrake). These were complemented by original Harry Potter art relating to mandrake roots, and also to garden gnomes.

Next came Charms, which was in a room decorated with broomsticks and witches hats, and includes manuscripts dealing with the Pendle Witches and other historical witches, and also included an 'invisibility cloak' (hanging from a hook in a glass case, and apparently made of 'unknown substances' and loaned by a 'private lender'! 

There was also a long, panoramic illustration of Diagon Alley, and one of JK Rowling's own original illustrations (showing the entry to the Alley), and a golden snitch projected flying around the walls.

Manuscripts on display included a 4thC papyrus from Thebes, and the 13thC  Liber medicinalis, showing the first recorded use of the word 'Abaracadabra' (to cure malaria, in case you were wondering) 

Image (c) British Library

There were also some Ethiopian manuscripts, and a hand-written copy of the 'Tales of Beedle the Bard' (one of a very limited edition, created by Rowling for charity) 

The next room was Astronomy, which featured a lovely starry ceiling, and a beautiful 1693 Coronelli celestial globe, and exhibits including the Dunhuang Star Atlas, from 700BC, a Chinese star chart which is apparently  the oldest complete map of the skies, and a rather lovely 11th or 12thC astronomical text which included little sketches (and, I believe, poems) about different constellations

Image (c) British Library
There were also a couple of pages from the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, relating to observations of the moon.

We then moved on to the Divination room, which was decorated with teacups and saucers having from the ceiling, and lots of red drapery and a wall displaying crystal balls, and a portrait of Sybill Trelawney. 

This section included one of the oldest items in the exhibition (and indeed in the Library) a Chinese 'oracle bone' - the specific one on display is known to be over 3,000 years old, as it references a Lunar eclipse which took place on Dec 27, in 1192 BC.

There are also more modern artefacts - Victorian and early 20thC guides to reading tea-leaves, a 700 year old guide to Palmistry, and an interactive, digital tarot reading!.

Moving on to Defence Against the Dark Arts, you will find a Sphinx, several pages of a very early draft of HP#1, featuring a Muggle minister named Fudge, sustaining a visit from Hagrid to warm him against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and references to Fudge's colleague, Vernone Dursley,and his son, Didsbury...

There was also a lovely 16th C illustration of a Basilisk (a three tailed dragon, in this iteration). I think the portrait of Remus Lupin was in this section, too. And the Kappas (Art of JK Rowling's version, and some older, netsuke versions)

In the Care of Magical Creatures  room were a row of large, frosted 'windows' along one side, behind which could be seen the silhouettes of various creatures could be seen moving past - I spotted a unicorn, a toad, a winged horse, and a few others.

There were sketches of Hagrid, manuscripts showing different breeds of unicorn, a number of dragons, and of course the Phoenix - including the original Jim Kay art used on the exhibition posters, and others from the Library's collection

Phoenix - 3thC Bestiary. Image (C) British Library

The Library also displayed their copy of John Aubedon's The Birds of America (which is huge, over 3' tall) open to the page showing the Snowy Owl. There was also a copy of Maria Sybilla Merian's book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium - she was a naturalist who led an exhibition to Surinam in 1699 and discovered bird-eating spiders (but her findings were dismissed as fantasy until corroborated by male naturalists, over 100 years later)

The final part of the exhibition is titled Past, Present, Future - one wall is taken up with a display of the books, in many different languages and editions, and this section also includes Rowling's copy of the screenplay for 'Fantastic Beasts, showing her annotations, a highly detailed model of the stage set for the Harry Potter play.

Throughout the exhibition there were things from JK Rowling's own archive - sketches, notes, lists and so on - a first, handwritten note of the Sorting Hat's song, for example, notes of other possible methods for students to be sorted, and detailed tabulated plot planning.
Sketch of Hogwarts, (C) JK Rowling

I thought the exhibition was very well done, and has a nice mixture of items and lots to interest and engage both adults and children, and the design was a lot of fun. I was very slightly disappointed that, while several rooms were lined with images of bookshelves, the titles suggested that these were simply scans or photos of some of the British Libraries own, muggle collection, and not of the Hogwarts library, but one can't have everything.

The exhibition runs at the British Library until 28th February - pre-booking is recommended, and I think availability is mostly limited to week-days, now. It's apparently then going to New York in October 2018.

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